Chapter 18 - First Strike
Oh, hello. Look at that, it's June. Haha. Ha.
Well, please don't take this really slow update as a lack of interest. Yes, I had a mountain of stuff to deal with in life over the past couple months, but more than that, I've done a lot of structural/outlining work on the story overall, which I think makes it much more solid, consistent, easy to follow and ultimately satisfying for you as a reader on this journey. :)
I figured it might be useful to set some (non-spoilery) expectations, so here you go:
This chapter marks the beginning of the centerpiece of this first arc. The centerpiece is the game changer that happens right in the middle of the story. I'm expecting it to be 3 chapters long, and from a character arc perspective, it will shift them from the more reactive first half of the story to the more assertive action of the second half. Should be interesting!
To put that into perspective, the first quarter of this story contained the beginning chapters that introduced a lot of plots and concepts and initiated the character arcs. It was capped by the first major plot point - the journey into Jack's memories. The second quarter had them all reacting and trying to manage the implications, deepening the plot, further developing the relationship ties and setting up the pieces for the second half. This midpoint sequence will shift the momentum of the story so the second half will mirror and contrast the first half, building up to the climax.
The 25 percent of the story that comes right after this midpoint will have the characters acting quite differently as their development continues, and will feature one primary mini-arc that will push everyone to where they need to be for the climax. I'm really looking forward to this section, because it dives into North's history with Jack and introduces a character you've likely encountered in other fics… but I don't think I've ever seen them presented like this. XD
Then yaaaaaaaaaay, we finally hit the climax that will run through the last quarter of the story! Because so many people ask - THIS will be the point where all the gruesome details of Jack's experience with Spring are finally revealed to all. It's also when the scene that was shown in the prologue takes place. ^_^ Heh heh. Lots of crisis! And then a good deal of resolution before I mess it all up again to lead into the second arc.
NONE of this would be happening well at this point without the help of my lovely BETAs, Jennifer and Cassandra. They're way more than BETAs at this point. They bring so much joy to the creative process.
Bunny had almost forgotten how loud the wind could be as it whipped along the contours of his ears when he moved at these speeds above ground. Since he'd spent centuries sticking primarily to his tunnels or stealthily moving through other settings, he had almost forgotten the exhilaration that came from racing flat out in a nonlinear environment - one densely packed with obstacles that demanded he ascend through different levels of the terrain to achieve his goal.
The race to collect teeth with his fellow Guardians had been the first vivid reminder. This second fast-paced journey was proving even more challenging as he navigated not an urban nighttime landscape, but a dense Malaysian jungle under a bright sun. To maintain the speeds he currently needed required him to bound off trunks and branches to keep him mostly above the tree tops and out of the tangle below. To an outside observer, it would have looked like a rabbit hopping through a clover field, the depth of the forest beneath him hidden by the way he seemed to run along the surface of the canopy.
And he was not the only bunny there. Darting ahead, always a little faster than the legendary Pooka, was a small, silvery, translucent rabbit, whisking along the surface of the leaves as if nothing slowed it down, leaving a telling trail of frost in its wake.
After six rounds, the mystery of the game had worn off, but the excitement certainly hadn't. His appreciation of Fun had never been higher, and his determination to protect and support its source and Guardian had never been stronger. He'd make sure Jack knew just how well he was doing as a new Guardian… and friend.
To start with, Hope's Guardian would finish playing this game the younger spirit had created especially for him.
Bunny gave an extra bound of joy, feeling as bright as the sun. It had turned out to be so much more than a game.
It had started the second he had returned to the Warren after his chat with Demi. He was distracted, still mulling over that rare encounter. Demi mostly kept to herself, and no one questioned it. As the last member of Autumn, she spent decades at a time completely dispersed throughout the natural parts of her season, unreachable, taking no concrete physical form. Still, she was ancient- far older than Bunny- and knew the old ways of things. Surely she could shed some light on Jack's situation…
Before he had had time to replay their conversation in his mind for a fourth time, a familiar fresh-and-frosty scent snapped his attention back to his surroundings. His ears perked up with interest as he scanned the section of the Warren currently in view. A piece of paper lay conspicuously along the main path.
He hopped over, picked it up and read the handful of words on its surface.
"Hey Cottontail- time to make a few celebrity appearances! Try to keep up."
A rustling sound came from a nearby cluster of flowers.
But it wasn't Jack that popped out of a bed of white tulips. It was a playful, animated rabbit made entirely of ice dust, sparkling brightly in the natural glow of the Warren. It twitched its nose in challenge at the Pooka and then took off at a mad scamper. Bunny grinned, intrigued, and took off after it- but as he drew nearer, it sped up. He ran faster. So did it.
Before long, he was racing his fastest as the small magical creature led him through a tunnel into the arid warmth of- he took a quick sniff and gander- the Chihuahuan desert. Mexican side, he realized as he did a mental check of the tunnel he'd just emerged from.
The frost rabbit had paused, looking back when it realized Bunny had fallen a little behind as he checked out the surroundings with his customary wariness. As the Pooka drew closer, the translucent hare raised its tail puff and waggled it in a decidedly saucy fashion before zipping forward to evade Bunny's extra burst of speed.
They raced toward a small mountain nearby, and Bunny could have sworn the icy apparition was intentionally trying to trick him into smacking into one of the small cacti or prickly bushes hugging the flat, dusty ground along the way. But his instincts were far too sharp for such errors, his eyes clear and his banking skills legendary. In a funny way, it seemed like an obstacle course specially designed to work out his strengths, pushing just hard enough, and with a plethora of last-minute surprises to deliver a thrill.
Bunny raised his brows as he realized there was a small settlement at the foot of the mountain they were nearing. But he didn't slow, since the frost rabbit turned aside and headed toward a cliff half a mile from the village border. As he drew near he began to feel a familiar sensation… a strong wave of Belief? What?
He reached the reddish-brown cliff-like mountain side and turned a corner around one of its folds to find he was suddenly no longer alone. He heard childish laughter and skidded to a stop, drawing completely upright in surprise. There, in the mountain nook were close to thirty children from the nearby village. Most of them were running around with a handful of frost rabbits that matched Bunny's guide (who was now looking just a tad smug at the Pooka's shocked face). But a few kids sat with paper and drawing supplies, or cloth and sewing material, facing the side of the mountain.
Because there on the rock face was a 10-foot googie-shell-and-permanent-ice Easter egg mosaic, similar to the one Jack had made in the Warren with its vivid, luminescent colors and wild designs. It had obviously attracted a larger audience here.
An audience that was now staring in wide-eyed wonder as a giant bunny-man burst into their midst. And because they were children still full of innocent acceptance, that wonder turned to excitement as they instantly recognized one of their heroes and naturally attributed the magic they had been enjoying to the Easter Bunny.
The Pooka spent the next five minutes being petted and climbed on, listening to declarations that they knew he would come this year, admiring half-finished googie artwork, and just generally being admired. As the flicker of Belief turned into a roaring fire in each of their hearts and the sense of Hope Fulfilled radiated from them, something sunk deep into his bones at the proximity, easing a certain ache he'd been ignoring for the past couple weeks.
He found himself laughing almost tearfully and calling up a few of the googies that had managed to bloom in the Warren that week. He had intended them to start the cold storage stockpile for next year, but this was a much better use, Bunny decided as he launched an impromptu egg hunt.
An hour later, there was chocolate on every face turned up toward the Pooka who was telling the story of how the Guardians defeated the evil boogeyman. As the story ended and the kids began a litany of questions, the frost rabbits all hopped up as if they had received some invisible cue. They began moving back to the village, at first slowly, then picking up speed as the children began following, once Bunny had said goodbye and gently sent them on their way. He tucked the egg pictures two of the children had given him into his bandolier with a quiet smile.
But the sassiest frost bunny of the bunch stayed with the Easter Guardian, and as the children disappeared from view, it flicked an ear at Bunny and raced for the nearest visible Warren portal. Bunny snorted- how did the lil bugger make an ear flick look like a feisty challenge? He grinned with a little of his own mischief and tapped his foot on the ground twice. He knew a short cut to that tunnel…
A day later, Bunny had been on the move nonstop, but his energy had never been higher. Every one of the six 'playtimes' Jack had set up that he had visited so far had been perfect. Refreshing, encouraging, filled with Hope and Belief.
The frost bunny, clever and inventive in every environment it had led him through, drew him from one location to another. The surroundings changed with each region, but the game was the same. A giant shining jewel of an egg adorned a slightly secluded surface by a town or village, and a small colony of frost rabbits had somehow led children- and only children- to admire it. Each time as Bunny drew near, he could feel the waves of rekindled Belief before he heard the laughter. Everytime, as smiling faces turned to him, he knew with certainty that his legend was strengthened - and therefore his ability to protect these children. It was one of those things he knew would create rippling waves reaching out from each community for years, as Belief tended to do.
The grief he had felt for his holiday after the blow it had suffered this year and the deep anxiety for his Season that had built within him after listening to Sephi were exponentially lighter than they had been a day ago. Hope was everywhere.
And surprisingly, so was Spring. He had finally noticed it at the third site, but it was there at all of them. As his laughter had floated into the breeze, Bunny realized that the air was similar in each place. It was very fresh, filled with a sense of springtime, neither too hot nor too cold.
This extremely pleasant breeze seemed to flow right alongside him as he gave a mighty jump that carried him over a river from one section of jungle to another. And right there ahead, on a sandstone mountainside just beside a cave, a mosaic egg and children and frost rabbits.
He wasn't sure how, but he found himself inspired to come up with new games to play with the children at each location. This, he figured as he watch the blue sparkles fly from the backs of energetic icy creatures, was all part of Jack's gift - he just needed to run with it and enjoy these moments. And because he now trusted Jack enough, he was able to do just that.
But really - how had the kid thought of all this? Had he known? That the loss of this year's Easter still ached in so many ways?
With the Nightmare attack, his Warren had been violated in a manner that brought up the most horrific memories. The sense of safety, of home, that he had worked so hard to build back up over the centuries, had been stripped away. And before he had a moment to recover from the recoil, he'd had to feel the wide-spread death of Belief and Hope, fall into the void it left as the power was sucked out of him like water down a drain. Leaving him a hollow, invisible shell.
And worst of all… this meant he was unable to watch over and protect all those children. Unable to live out his Center, reduced to watching in emptiness as they were left vulnerable to disappointed hopes and darker things.
Bunny closed his eyes. He held the small boy and girl who had crawled into his lap closer for a few of moments, relishing the solid contact. His eyes were serious and pensive when he opened them.
No. He knew how Jack knew. Of course he would understand every part of that experience. Exposure to a few days of it had rocked Bunny to the core. But Jack… that had been his whole life.
And to somehow take those centuries of terrible experience and process it through a core of compassion to create something beautiful like this game… And for Bunny, of all spirits…
It was all… unbelievable on so many levels. The understanding and effort this must have taken. The ability to set each piece up and time it correctly. He realized once again how he must have underestimated the frost spirit. He'd always just had this impression that Jack flew around helter-skelter, following whatever impulse gripped him. But this game- the detail and precision- was not something accomplished without insight and skills. The instinctive kinds that were developed with time and practice.
What had Jack been doing for three centuries?
Bunny released the children, who immediately raced after the smaller, frostier versions of his species leading the kids to discover more hidden googies. It had been a creation just like these that had saved Easter- saved him- by keeping the last drop of belief in him from disappearing down that metaphorical drain. Bunny sat quietly for a moment, observing them interact with the kids as they discovered eggs together. It was amazing how well the magical creatures fit in with the Easter activity. They brought just the right combination of companionship, curiosity and encouragement.
Well, Bunny now knew with conviction that he had been dead wrong to assume 'Jack Frost doesn't care about children'. In fact, he'd never known anyone who cared and understood them better. How else would he have known exactly how to safely bring them here, at just the right time for Bunny to arrive, and ensure every little opportunity for joy was set up- even when the Guardian of Fun wasn't here himself?
Bunny hopped into the middle of the group again and lost himself in their excitement, changing the rules once more. Now everyone find a green and yellow googie!
Giggles grew as they tackled the new task. Bunny ruefully shook his head.
He may still have more questions than answers when it came to Frost, but he knew one role the boy fit solidly into.
Jack had brought them all to what they needed. These children had been led by their own belief and a little playful guidance to what they required. And so had Bunny.
Jack had significantly and naturally bolstered an Aspiration- and not just his own. Hope had not only been restored in all these hearts, it had been strengthened. After disappointment had come something better than they'd expected. Their own belief had been rewarded. And that effect would stretch on through hearts and time.
Jack had proven himself a thoughtful ally multiple times in two short weeks. Through acts like this, he had strengthened the crucial bonds needed for them to be a team. He'd focused on helping them rather than trying to grab glory for himself, which was the more obvious route when taking on a freshly minted position. As had been proven more times than he could count, it was as a team that the Guardians were truly able to live the Oath. And if what they experienced in Jack's memory-thoughts was any indication, the boy had probably been living that Oath in their shadow, connected but hidden and unrecognized, for a lot longer than two weeks. Both the implied imitation of the Big Four and the way he'd never given up on his own hands-on methods demonstrated a singular focus on that Oath purpose over centuries of time, with no recognition or reward whatsoever.
Well, no longer. That pale helping hand, already experienced and wise in all the important ways of a Guardian, was going to be held for once.
Bunny managed to pick out his icy guide rabbit from the group and hopped over to make a request. Jack's day with Tooth should be about over, and he didn't mind a double shift with the kid this week…
"I can think of an ankle-biter who def'nitely shouldn't be missing out on this fun, ya catch me?"
The snowy creature perked up and gave a nod.
As the bunny turned to race back towards its maker and pull him into the game, Bunny shook his head again, recognizing the biggest hurdle to their current progress was the frost spirit himself.
If Jack could only learn to take their hands in return…
An icy gale shrieked through the clearing, causing every living and magical being within to look around with a startled gasp. It took only a second for every set of eyes to land on the slightly disheveled Guardian of Fun who now stood 20 feet from Bunny. A Guardian of Fun whose face did not reflect his Center at the moment.
The tense anxiety in Jack's expression eased slightly with relief as his eyes locked on Bunny's. As if something he hadn't dared to hope for was in front of him, but still not secure. An uncomfortable jolt zinged through Bunny's heart as he recognized that Jack looked scared. He hated seeing fear in any child, and the glint of it in Jack's normally laughing eyes… Bunny's ears drooped in sorrow at the same time his fists tightened in anger.
"Jack, what's happened, mate? Who-"
But Jack had broken eye contact to glance with a wince at the children who were staring at him in some alarm, picking up on the tension rolling off him after his sudden chilling entrance. They had just been playing in his magic, their hearts bursting with Belief in Fun and connected to the pool that tied all the Guardians together, no fear to blind them - it was enough, their eyes were open to the existence of Jack Frost. An existence no longer completely hidden by a veil. But those open eyes were starting to look scared now that he was in front of them…
Jack quickly looked down, his expression sinking further as he cut Bunny off.
"They have to go, now. And what about the others? Was- were any children hurt, or did you-"
"Hey, now," Bunny's voice had become gentle and soothing as he stepped toward the child-Guardian. Taking in the line of tears rimming Jack's eyes and the way he held his staff closer as Bunny moved forward, he raised a paw in a calming gesture. "Everything's good, mate. Nothing but funtimes so far. Just- Just stay calm and tell ol' Cottontail why ya look like someone melted your favorite snowball." He had moved close enough now that he could speak the next sentence very quietly, so only Jack could hear. "No sense in upsettin' the children, Jack."
Jack looked up at him, face tense, then gasped as something behind the Pooka caught his eye. Bunny quickly spun to see what had startled Jack, but all he could see were a couple of the children running after three frost rabbits who were darting for the trees. With a puzzled frown, he turned back just in time to see Jack's angry expression and raised staff before the boy slammed the wooden pole into the ground. A thundering snap sent streaks of blue-white magic to tear through all the frost rabbits, each one twisting unnaturally for a moment before exploding into snowflakes that didn't twinkle, but fell lifelessly to the ground.
Bunny's complete shock was broken by the first child's wail, which was soon followed by the fearful tears of many others. The Pooka put a heavy paw on Jack's shoulder, barely registering the way he stiffened at the touch, and gave the boy a firm, intense look. He'd never seen Jack look paler or more horrified as the children's unhappy cries washed over him.
"Th- they were dangerous. They could have-"
Jack stared up at Bunny, his misery obviously acute. His eyes were asking for help.
"You'll take them back home? Make sure they get there safely?"
"'Course. Then we'll have a chat and you can tell me why this-" He gestured at the tearful kids, "Was necessary."
Jack simply nodded and sank to the ground, knees up and staff curled protectively to his chest.
Bunny gave him a worried glance but turned and hopped over to the children, giving them his best smile and most reassuring words. He called forth all the googies they had been playing with earlier and started a marching line of them back to the village.
By the time the kids made it to their homes with their armfuls of chocolate treats, the small faces were beaming again, the momentary upset all but forgotten. Bunny didn't think a little chocolate would fix things for the youth he had left behind, though. He turned and raced back the way he'd come.
When the Easter Guardian reached the clearing, he slowed and frowned to see Jack curled up, braced against a tree, face buried in his knees, one foot crossed on top of the other.
Bunny sighed as he crouched down in front of the huddled form. On a strange, instinctive impulse, he leaned forward and nudged the top of the snowy head with his nose. Jack unwound very slightly, looking up as if waking from a dream, obviously coming from somewhere deep inside himself. His eyes were guarded, almost blank.
Bunny sat back on his haunches, his expression calm, if somewhat perturbed. He kept his gaze steady and tried to put inquiry rather than accusation into his next words.
"You're better than that, Jack."
"No, I'm not. How would you know?!" Quick and angry and vulnerable, like poking a wounded animal with a stick. The sentences had raced out, warring for dominance.
As Bunny leaned back, blinking, he realized Jack had just summed up the heart of the problem in seven words. Anemic self-worth. Trust that was fragile at best. Both deriving from a sense of abandonment - and probably other sources. Bunny cringed as he remembered Sephi's cruel perspective.
Clearing his throat, the Pooka stood to his full height.
The shell of anger dropped to worry, slightly scared, as the frost spirit scrambled up. He faced the other Guardian, tensing, defiance obviously a flimsy covering for something else. Bunny wasn't sure what the kid was expecting, and he didn't particularly want to guess.
Well that obviously hadn't been it. Bunny would have smirked at Jack's baffled expression had the situation been less unpleasant. Instead, he crossed his arms until Jack slowly took the first fighting stance Bunny had taught him. Giving the Pooka just the barest benefit of the doubt.
"You remember the first sequence we went over? It was only eight moves-"
Jack gave a short huff and quickly went through motions- punches, blocks, pivots and kicks blurring together with impatience rather than precision. He somehow managed to do it all without loosening the death grip on his staff. Jack finished with an frustrated wave of his hand.
"That's not important right now, there's-"
"It's obviously critical if that's how poorly ya've learned. Do it right. Then you can explain."
"We don't have time for-"
"There's always time ta get your head straight or there simply isn't enough time to begin with. And you know what helps with that? Training. Meditation. Discipline. So when you come to these moments of urgency- your mind is clear and your actions intentional. Not some irrational impulse." He gestured to the village. "Counterproductive impulse. Do it. Right."
Jack grit his teeth, but tried again, his tension making the motions jerky.
"M'kay, this time, try breathing."
A glare, and the command was obeyed. Somewhat smoother, but the pace was choppy, lacking the confidence that comes when a body falls back onto good training instead of allowing the mind to overthink each piece.
"Hmph. Don't see this improving anytime soon, so why don't you save us a few ticks and talk while you continue practicing. What's gotcha in such a flurry?"
Jack seemed to be finding his rhythm, starting to benefit from both the physical release for his adrenalin and the focusing effect of the predictable, sequential practice. Bunny did smirk slightly as the workout had the intended impact on the boy, but that smirk dissolved into concern as Jack started his tale about frightened children in the woods, morphed into shock at the report of an entire host of Fearlings, and simmered into anger at the news of Bimari's attack on his friends. When Jack's movements became more broken and then stilled completely as he haltingly told of the suffering of the tooth fairies and their queen's sorrow, Bunny almost wished the dark spirit was there so he had something to 'practice' on.
It was Jack's final words, now being spoken as if he had no listeners, that pushed past Bunny's anger. The grey warrior had been glaring into the distance, but fury fell to compassion as he saw clearly the stark need in front of him.
"All of that- it's like she said, I did that. It's what I am." Jack was staring at nothing, speaking the next words almost in a trance, as if they were familiar and rang with Truth. For some reason, Bunny felt a distinctive chill, a strange foreign will echoing them beyond physical hearing. "I make a mess wherever I go."
Jack jerked in surprise as a grey paw took him firmly by the chin and drew his face to meet the Pooka's scowling visage.
Bunny's ears flicked with each word he spoke next, counting off a list.
"Mexico. Chile. Poland. Qatar. Swaziland. Portugal. Malaysia. One day. Hundreds of children, strengthened an' protected. Filled with Hope. No 'messes'."
Jack pulled back, bumping into a tree that edged the clearing.
"Not yet, but it's only a matter of time." His staff switched hands in an angry gesture. "There are all these dark things out there, apparently with a taste for Jack Frost." He turned partially away from Bunny, tension bunching his shoulders, his posture becoming defensive. "And I just, I drop my staff," He flung his arm out, snapping straight again, "And sprinkle some tasty frosting around the whole world, luring them to hundreds of children left exposed," His voice cracked. "And- and leading them straight to you." He finally turned back to face Bunny, his face wild with pent up frustration.
"AUGH!" Jack spun around and punched the tree three times, fury driven into each impact that scraped off skin and left startlingly bright red blood on blue-white knuckles. Bunny caught his wrist before the fourth blow could land.
The grey arm kept a firm hold and pulled back. Jack only resisted for a moment before his arm went limp, hanging from where the older Guardian gripped his wrist. His face stayed angry, however, and he refused to look at Bunny.
The Pooka had had just about enough of this self-recrimination over an act of innocent generosity.
"This isn't just about you, y'know. This is definitely a bigger problem, an' not one ya need to carry on your own."
Jack looked up at him, eyes losing a little of their heat as they turned cautious. He was listening. Almost hopeful. It struck Bunny as painfully ironic that he was now having to tell Jack to stop looking in and start reaching out. On so many levels, ironic. But he continued.
"B'lieve me, I- I know. It's unnecessary and unwise to go it alone."
Jack jerked as if struck and began to pull back before Bunny had finished the sentence. A look of bitterness and betrayal twisted painfully across his face, although he obviously was struggling to hide it. The kid was really bad at that.
"Unnecessary?" Jack hissed as if the word burned him.
And though that look pierced the soul, Bunny recognized it as the illuminating lifeline it was. A lifeline he could use with caution to pull the drowning kid back in.
He knew that feeling, being unnecessary, and instinctively reached back into his own experiences with his Season to find the words he had once craved, words he had found instead from an unlikely mixed group of spirits who shared a core value- protecting children. Bunny's green eyes carefully assessed the young face in front of him as he pulled on the arm he still held to draw the boy closer.
"You're wanted, Jack. Here, with us. No going back, we're connected like a snake to it's tail. No 'my' problems. They're ours."
Jack stilled in complete shock at the simple word 'wanted'. Eyes turned absolutely crystalline, like waters so clear their true depths were hidden in plain sight. His feet brought him unconsciously closer as Bunny pulled him forward, but it was Bunny's turn to feel a moment of shock as the white head fell forward, Jack's forehead coming to rest against the deep fur of the warrior Pooka's chest.
Bunny was paralyzed, nose twitching, ears flicking, his own heartbeat the only thing he could hear. He had just recovered enough to tilt his head and peer down when he saw them. Two tears dropped to the ground from the face bowed in front of him. Then a third. Then two more. With no further thought, he brought his free hand up and cradled the back of Jack's head shifting him even closer so his face was fully buried in chest fur that would catch each remaining tear.
"Fear does this, ya know. Tricks you into seeing things all dodgy. Ya lose sight of what's real an' just…" He sighed with old burdens. "React."
A few moments passed before there was a quiet, muffled reply. "Then how are you supposed to tell what's real or- I mean, if it seems real… how do you understand or even recognize it in the first place?"
"Yeah, not easy, definitely a right sneaky devil." Bunny imagined sending a few boomerangs to obliterate numerous Fearlings and smack into a certain Nightmare King who always seemed to be lurking behind these situations one way or another. "Hides b'hind other layers of darkness, masquerading and manipulating until ya dig deep enough ta scorch it with the bright truth that reveals it for the misguiding pitfall it is. Ya have to stare it in the face b'fore it can pull you down into that twisted reality. All the lies."
"But what if what you fear is real?"
"Ya face it just the same. You already know that part. It's the lesson you taught Jamie, an' did a corker of a job, too."
"…oh yeah…" Jack raised his head slightly, face somewhat calmer, thoughtful. "…a little fun instead. Face it another way."
Bunny chuckled at last and began reaching his other arm up to wrap around Jack's shoulders. "Trust your Center. An' like you're always showing, Fun's better with others, right? We've faced worse than this, y'know. Just stick with-"
Just as Bunny was saying 'stick' something smacked into the arm that was reaching around to encompass blue-clad shoulders. Jack had looked up even before the sound, as if anticipating something was approaching. Bunny's arm was at eye level for him, so he saw the moment of impact almost in the same instant that he realized Bunny was reaching for the embrace. The Pooka felt nothing at first, and so stared with some confusion at the insect on his arm. But horror rippled across Jack's face in perfect understanding.
A six-inch wasp of unnatural bulk had buried its stinger completely in the grey-furred flesh.
"People really should stop trying to hug you. It's sickening… literally." A voice crowed as Bunny fell to his knees, his legs suddenly ceasing to work. He hunched over. It felt like his joints were being shattered as his muscles twisted tight. Jack dropped instantly to one knee, throwing an arm around Bunny's shoulders protectively and raising his staff to cross in front of the Pooka. The stricken warrior could feel the arctic cold emanating from the conduit and its controller as shards of frost flashed out to coat the entire surface of the wooden pole. With a slight movement, the wasp was frozen solid and Jack flicked it up and away, the stinger coming easily free with the insect no longer driving it home.
The numbness left Bunny's arm and he could immediately feel the sharp and sickly pain of the wound and the venom eating away at flesh and entering the bloodstream. Despite the excruciating sensation, his mind began identifying steps for treatment that would keep him going long enough to do battle.
Apply a constricting band. Apply-
His urgent planning was interrupted by the impressive cascade of venomous creatures beginning to leak out from the trees all around the clearing. Wasps and snakes locked together to give form to Bimari, stepping from the shadows of the trees just beside them and looking down with satisfaction. She shivered as Jack's chilling power flowed over her, but she seemed to be relishing it. Her words slurred slightly with surplus saliva as her eyes crawled over Jack's form. "But it must be delightful, this hugging, if they're willing to leave you all weak and off guard and expose themselves, for the chance at a squeeze. Let me try."
The slight weight of Jack's arm left Bunny's shoulders and he was suddenly gone from the Pooka's side. Though the movement was agony, Bunny raised himself higher, frantically looking around for the younger Guardian.
Jack had been yanked away by the tail of a 30-foot python wrapped around his ankle. He was held aloft for a moment as he was dragged away. Jack raised his staff. The snake coiled itself faster than a blink around both the boy's slender form and his staff, like a fist clenching around a stick. Though cold-blooded, the ice spreading over its scaly hide didn't seem to deter it in the slightest.
"Jack!" Bunny felt a moment of panic. Though he knew pythons were nonvenomous, this one was posing an even greater threat than one of the toxic biters. If the frost spirit's conduit snapped the kid would be left all but defenseless.
As the constrictor squeezed the breath from its victim, Bunny tried to stand. He fell flat to the ground for his effort, barely able to brace himself with his paws. With his uninjured arm, Bunny hastily pulled a detachable strap from his bandolier and in a swift and skilled move, pulled it snug but not overly tight high on the other arm to slow the progression of the venom into the rest of his system and mute the current effects for a short period.
His head jerked up when he heard an eerie creaking sound. But it wasn't the wood of Jack's staff. Jack had made the only move he could as he'd been wrapped up, nestling the staff between his arms in front of him, bracing it with his own bones. As Jack threw his head back in a voiceless scream, Bunny realized what had happened- unprotected by his arms, Jack's ribs were receiving the full brunt of the pressure. And making a noise that promised debilitating damage very soon...
"Oh yes, deliciousssss." The python's face had changed to Bimari's as she rubbed her cheek against Jack's, her euphoric expression and delighted hiss a gross contrast to Jack's soundless agony.
She had barely finished speaking before a boomerang took her head completely off.
By the time the severed head hit the ground, it was once again simply a python's. The snake's body fell limp, as did Jack's when the coils loosened.
Focusing on keeping his breathing steady and his heartbeat slow to give himself more time against the toxin's effects, Bunny managed to stand as Bimari's voice came from a new direction.
"Aw. That was my 532nd favorite serpent, foolish rabbit."
To illustrate the implied numbers, thousands of snakes pushed through the tree trunks in a nearly solid wall of writhing flesh, the rasping sound of scales tearing across bark nearly drowning the sound of branches snapping free of rapidly rotting wood. Bunny's heart rate accelerated despite his attempt at control. Some of his closest friends had been snake spirits, but this was a wall of doom, pure and simple. Enough dripping fangs and lean, crushing muscles to wipe out hundreds of rabbit warrens, more than enough to take care of the two injured targets in the clearing. He began stumbling over to where Jack was gasping and weakly trying to untangle himself from the remains of the python.
"If you were so desperate to be an appetizer, you needed only ask to go first."
"Bunny!" Jack saw the first six vipers that sprang at Bunny from the grass a second before the Pooka did, and shot a quick succession of ice bolts to freeze them in mid-jump. Fortunate, since another eight sprang from the other side before the first wave had dropped to the ground as frozen icicles. Bunny severed them all cleanly with a single boomerang toss, not slowing his progress toward Jack. He finally reached the boy's side and lost no time in throwing an arm around him and tapping a foot twice against the ground.
Fear stabbed through Bunny, cutting through his shock as no Warren tunnel appeared to escape the tide of deadly magical beasts that were about to crash over them.
A look of alarmed realization settled on Jack's face. Taking a deep breath, he wrapped his own arms tightly around Bunny, teeth gritting with the pressure on his ribs. They were in the air before Bunny had a chance to adjust his own one-armed hold on Jack. The Pooka clutched the kid's shoulder tighter, staring at the rapidly departing ground. A snake of almost luminescent black and gold made a last attempt to reach them, springing higher in the air than a normal snake would ever manage, but it only grazed Jack's foot before falling into Bimari's arms, 15 feet below.
They didn't make it much farther before a swarm screen of wasps formed above them and immediately dove. A small cyclone of wind and ice shards created a protective barrier around them, the wasps being caught and expelled when they entered the gale.
"Call Tooth!" Jack instructed as he obviously tried to keep his concentration on fighting off the deadly insects with his freezing wind.
"Can't summon a googie from here, and -" Pain was loosening Bunny's grip despite his determined efforts to focus past it. "Can ya find a clear place to set us down? Should be able ta open a tunnel, dunno what went wrong b'fore-"
Jack was shaking his head in frustration. "It's how the venom works. Cuts you off from your powers and begins to drain them- doesn't take long to-"
And without further ado, Jack was no longer holding a full sized warrior rabbit, but dropping a small, fluffy bunny. He plunged immediately and caught Bunny before he fell far, but dropped the wind shield in the process. The makeshift constricting band, no longer attached to the bandolier that was tied to his morphing powers, was now too large for the tiny paw and fell to the ground. The venom flooded his miniature body in a wave that drew a helpless scream from his pathetically twitching form.
The Pooka barely registered the deafening howl of wind and ice or they way the world around them became completely obscured in white, knowing only a pain so intense it pulled him to the brink of unconsciousness in seconds. He did, however, feel it when something soothing, so beautifully soothing he figured he must actually be dying, spread up his arm from the very wound that had initiated the pain. But as it spread through the rest of him, leaving sweet relief on the rawest of nerves, his brain began to function beyond the internal sensations.
He was alive. And so was Jack. And his arm was sticky with a golden glow.
Jack was holding him close, bracing Bunny with his forearm, and had actually curled his body protectively around the mini-Pooka. He was maintaining a roaring blizzard around them.
And he was shouting? Sounding urgent but relieved. And was that Tooth?!
Bunny twisted in Jack's arm, surprised at his own ability to move- and no pain! He saw Jack holding one of Tooth's crystal orbs which was clearly activated at the moment. The winter Guardian seemed to be giving her coordinates.
And with just as little warning as the first transformation, Bunny was full size once more.
The additional weight had clearly caught Jack by surprise as they both plummeted from the protective cocoon of the concentrated snowstorm. Jack managed to slow them before they slammed into the ground, Tooth's crystal communicator the only thing that connected with the earth unhindered as it dropped from Jack's hand.
And it seemed Bimari had been waiting for just such an opening. Now within reach, fangs tore into Bunny's shoulder and pulled him away from Jack, who was simultaneously claimed by another constrictor from ankles to throat.
Before Bunny could move or open his mouth to scream, a vibrant green snake had locked onto his throat and full body paralysis took hold… but it did nothing to numb the pain that shredded through every fiber as additional vipers and cobras swarmed him and bit deep.
Bunny was trapped in agony within his own body. He counted two unbearable heartbeats before his form shrank down again, and he was nothing but a tiny furry body nearly swallowed up by the number of venomous jaws gnawing at his deteriorating flesh.
Jack locked eyes with him, blue full of panic and fear and anger… but whatever he saw in the silent, helpless scream of Bunny's gaze changed all that to something the Pooka almost couldn't describe.
Eyes no longer blue but silver. Strangely wild and blank. And terrible. They shifted to meet Bimari who had moved close to Bunny, obviously enjoying the effect she was having on both of them. She mockingly gave Bunny's head a stroke.
"You see? Once I get my teeth in, fighting back is useless."
Bunny neared oblivion before the sentence was complete. The last thing he saw was Jack, without expression or hesitation, bite into the body of the snake holding him. The creature might have frozen solid and shattered, but it could have just been Bunny's imagination as everything went dark. All he knew as he faded was a sudden and strangely welcome bone-chilling cold.
Silent. He was the eye of the storm. Permanent ice, immovable, indestructible, unfeeling.
Wasps and snakes continued to swarm him but they all fell away before they could get too close, locked in an ice that would not melt.
He walked calmly to where the Spring spirit lay, his raised staff sending a rapid-fire blast of ice daggers to shred through the creatures currently giving Bimari a body. He didn't spare a glance for the bloody pieces that flew across the clearing or pay any mind to the spirit's shriek as she fled to other nearby hosts.
He stood over the snakes that were still digging into the rabbit's form. One tap of his staff and they were frozen solid. The second blow landing immediately after seemed to nearly vaporize them as they became nothing more than shards in a cloud of icy dust.
He crouched down and reach for the furry creature. It probably wasn't still alive, its form so torn and bloody. He was puzzled for a moment as he saw his own hand tremble as it made contact. Somewhere there was fear or some other unproductive emotion. Yes, there was that water dripping from his eyes again. What a nuisance.
He froze the pointless drops and grabbed the bunny with one hand. It hung limp in his grasp, unmoving- but then he hadn't expected anything different. Time to leave, there were more threats entering the wide space he had cleared around them, and for some reason the ice and wind were growing difficult to pull forth from his power core.
Two feet in the air was all he managed before he came to a hard landing. He was aware of a throb shooting through his heel.
Of course. That one leaping snake had managed to graze his foot, and the small amount of magical venom that had leaked into his system was taking effect. He could feel his powers sealing off at the same time a channel of access was pulling them somewhere beyond his reach. It was like a lid snapping in place and a straw shoved through to drain away his contents.
Reaching into his pouch while new venomous creatures slowly closed in, obviously more wary than before, he pulled out the small jar of honey medicine the feathered woman had given him. He wedged his staff in the crook of his elbow and scooped some of the highly viscous fluid out. He reached for his foot when something powerful pulled the hand coated with medicine to the small rabbit he held instead. A strategically backward move, but one he couldn't override. While something stronger than survival directed his hands, he looked around assessing.
His fingers running over torn flesh was making the eye streams melt again. Very impractical as the purposeless drops did nothing but obscure his vision as he sought a strategic direction for his escape. Oh, the cave. That would definitely help, would channel the attackers from a single direction. He was just turning to run towards it when a snake drew close and leapt at him. He lifted the animal he held, now coated in a glowing golden substance that was sticky but rapidly being absorbed. Just as he was moving to throw the creature to intercept the snake, the other hand lifted and in a fit of seeming madness threw the jar of medicine instead. It smacked the snake aside and crashed to the ground, shattering.
Such utter foolishness. He should get rid of this weak, comatose Spring spirit just to stop the insane actions of… whatever… but apparently that wasn't an option he could choose, either. Now they would probably both perish.
But he made it through the entrance of the cave and spun, staff raised, though no ice magic could be called forth. Bimari herself was leading the mad rush to the cave. It was a supremely bizarre sight, a flood of snakes and wasps intermingled with frost and new flowers trailing after her as she pulled on the two Guardians' elemental powers. But her flowers withered immediately and the frost left the ground black with dead grass instead of beautiful patterns.
He braced himself. Then straightened as Bimari smashed into an invisible barrier at the cave mouth, exploding into the hundreds of smaller creatures that had given her shape. She reassembled herself quickly and tried again with the same result.
She screamed, looking wild and insane in her fury.
"Hide then, in the dark, while I drain the life from you. You cannot escape from my venom no matter how far or deep you run."
He shrugged. The cave likely had other exits. He just needed to find one. The feathered woman was on her way, and she'd have more medicine. Without his frost powers, he wouldn't be able to use the little mirror the sand dwarf had given him, so he'd have to make himself easily findable.
He inspected the rabbit as he began walking back into the tunnel. The medicine was truly fast-acting, though, and had been thoroughly absorbed. Not a streak of it left in the fur or on his hand to treat his own wound. He was trying to calculate how long he likely had before he'd pass out, when the rabbit moved slightly in his arm. He was logging it away as a useless detail when an undeniable flood of relief crashed through him, breaking through the walls of the eye of the storm, the immovable inner ice thawing straight to mist as feeling returned painfully with each heartbeat.
And suddenly he was sobbing and feeling and holding his precious friend close like his life depended on it.
Bimari was seething. Her creatures were mirroring this inner turmoil, thrashing wildly around the clearing and starting to whisk recklessly up the mountain sides.
Fairies. Those human-addicts were so hard to get rid of. Wherever she encountered their fading presence, they managed to interfere. Of course, this was his cave, a sacred place she could not enter. He had long secluded himself here, preserving what he could of his presence, which was apparently still strong enough to protect his stronghold.
But she wanted more, she wanted more now.
The flavor of rabbit and flowers and wild and chocolate was growing more distant as the connection to the Spring Guardian ran dry, but the crisp, icy, fresh lightning she was drawing in a sip at a time was more than making up for it. It sparkled through her veins. This was Power, and she wanted to take it all at once, but she knew she needed to pace herself. Her own magic had to process it, digest the foreign energy and change it into her own- poison, venom, disease, plague, death. Yet with each pull of super-elemental power she craved more.
A glowing black and gold viper snaked its way up her form to circle her shoulders and she gave it an appreciative stroke. Yes, it had done its job well. Her special pet, carefully cultivated for just such a target. One she didn't want to lose at any cost. A venom that would run slow and deep. She could wait and drain him slowly, but what if he escaped? Toothiana's vile concoction could sever her tie before the transfer was complete.
This mountain was probably full of holes… like a rabbit warren. She grinned, suddenly knowing just what to do. With a gesture the sky filled with wasps which she summoned closer.
"I think we need to persuade some of our arachnid friends to lend us a hand. Nothing better than spiders to cast a net…"
The wasps scattered in every direction around the mountain, their rushing evidence of their eagerness for the task. They liked nothing better than to turn their venom to mind-control of lesser beings, and mastery of spiders pleased them most of all. In a quarter of an hour, all exits on the mountain would be covered, she had no doubt.
And to flush the rodents out and into her traps…
She lost no time in selecting the newest serpents in her retinue to test the barrier. It pained them, but their magical presence was subtle enough still that they made it through, one at a time. She sent these youngest snakes to seek out every available hole they could crawl through to chase her prey into the 'nets'.
Now it was only a matter of time. She calmed, taking a long drink of frosty deliciousness. How she wished she could watch his face while she did, though. It was so satisfying- he was so young and expressive.
"Jack! Bunny! Are you there?"
Bimari glanced around, hearing a tiny voice now that the agitated hissing had quieted. Oh. Yesssss, the crystal Frost had dropped! She threw her head back and laughed.
She rushed over and snatched it up. Her dark eyes glittered in satisfaction as she looked into the crystal and took in the angry, anxious faces of the final three Guardians. Tooth had obviously called in the troops and they were undoubtedly going to arrive through a portal or something any moment...
"Why Toothiana, so nice to see you again! Tell me, dear, how are your fairies? They didn't quite fill me up, I've been so hungry lately. But your two more substantial friends are such a satisfying feast. That was so considerate of you to send them to me."
"Bimari." For a moment the poisonous spirit saw the lines of ancient strength in Tooth's face. She had the commanding, unassailable presence of her mother, a ruler from the most powerful of times. It struck Bimari that there was no going back from this- either she succeeded or this warrior would end her. She took a long drink of Winter to steal her nerves.
Tooth's voice was as clear and hard as the crystal it issued from. "You have proven yourself a danger to the world, destructive to my realm, and deadly to my friends and allies. If you do not surrender immediately and release all holds you have on innocent creatures - especially Jack and Bunny -" Tooth's eyes were flames and her voice trembled with restrained rage, "I will give no quarter, even to death, until you and everything you influence are destroyed and erased from the histories and memories of all living things."
The Christmas and Dream Guardians stood behind Tooth, their faces just as hard as hers.
Hatred and resentment boiled through Bimari's blood. To be commanded, chastised. She gripped the crystal harder and raised her other hand so they could see it. She grew a flower and instantly killed it. Formed a spike of dark ice and promptly shattered it. Showing both her access to and intentions for the sources.
"Come. I will kill your companions that much faster. And I could use a tasty dessert."
Bunny wasn't sure when he was awake and when he was dreaming. All of it seemed like feverish nightmares filled with endless hissing and buzzing and pain.
But the pain began to recede and a few impressions came through clearer. Cool fingers gently soothing torn skin and muscles. Drops hitting his fur. Shattering glass. A lot of jostling movement. A scream he found he was strangely pleased to hear.
These were possibly dreams. He wasn't sure. Everything was dark and he couldn't move. But he was trying. And then he was being pressed painfully and heard a sound he couldn't name exactly that hurt him for some reason. Sounds weren't supposed to hurt. A whimper escaped him in his weakness and confusion. The pressure let up some, he registered gentle movements and then he felt inexplicably safe, cocooned. He drifted off into a quieter sleep as he felt the comfort of a steady, soft thump, thump, thump.
Another sound was the next thing he was coherently aware of. A voice. No, two. No, thousands, but most were an distant, musical whisper.
"Raja Jinn Peri? Never heard of you…" Jack. And he sounded wary.
A sigh followed his comment. Then a deep voice.
"I was caring for humans before you were a glimmer of a thought. Now barely a local name, as the story connections fade. Only the place-power of this cave keeps me tied to this world."
It was echo-y. Bunny was aware he was somehow securely held aloft. His flesh felt a little tender but it barely ached, a relaxing coolness spreading through him and calming the remaining swelling. He thought he cracked his eyes open, but he saw little. A soft glow illuminated a large cavern with stalactites and stalagmites of every size reaching for the surfaces opposite them. The colors were remarkably varied and a unique tone seemed to sing out softly from each spire. Bunny wondered abstractly what kind of stone created that effect.
But he saw nothing living or moving. The rich voice continued, coming from the blank air in front of him.
"Time for stories later. Always later, it seems. Nevermind. Now you have little time, with such toxic magic trapped in you. Her vipers invading my tunnels, their filth desecrating the safehold I maintained here as the ages passed." Bunny could physically feel the rumble when the voice growled.
As Jack spoke again, Bunny realized he was resting against the Winter spirit's chest. "Yeah, Bimari's not very considerate. Or up to speed on personal boundaries or… sanitation..."
"Well. We are skilled at leading the ill-favored astray. You must go deeper, where it is safer. I will check the mountain for an escape. These passages are my own, I can summon you where I need you when a safe passage is found."
Then the voice became louder, filling the cavern. "My Orang Bunian," the thousands of voices without form murmured louder briefly, as if responding to an address, "You must ensure these unclean serpents do not hinder our guests. Lead the snakes down dark tunnels, call to them, keep them trapped here until flesh withers from bone. Lost forever."
"Lost forever." "Ours to find." "Ours to keep."
The small voices faded as they departed, then changed to beseeching cries that called for help. The sounds of trapped victims.
Bunny could tell Jack began moving, stepping rapidly forward.
"DON'T FOLLOW THE VOICES."
Jack jerked to a stop as the cave seemed to shake.
"O-okay." Bunny felt a hand press him closer and realized for the first time that he was actually wedged in the top of Jack's hoodie, his face and paws emerging from the neck and his body kept snug against the boy's throat and chest. It was surprisingly comfortable.
Raja Jinn Peri's voice was quieter and gentle when he next spoke.
"Take this to see your way." A concentrated glow formed in front of them, yellow-white like the sunlight.
Jack cleared his throat. "Not to be ungrateful, but… why are you helping us?"
Exactly what Bunny had been wondering. It wasn't wise to trust random mysterious spirits in caves, especially ones that were 'skilled' at 'leading astray'.
There was a delighted, wild, low-toned laugh.
"Your boldness does you credit, little one! Very simple. You are the favored of the queen. And…"
Bunny could feel Jack tilt his head at the pause. Peri's voice became wondering and yearning and wistful, a strange combination for a tone so deep.
"You brought the children, helped lift their hearts. Dwelling here in this cave, the last bastion, my humans are usually far from reach. You brought them to my door with Joy itself. To see their faces and hear their laughter… to see Belief grow, and Story build… it was a sunrise flooding our dark world. I grant you a boon in gratitude, child."
The fairy light hovering in front of Jack grew brighter and Bunny thought he could almost see an outline of something in the glow. A tall form of indeterminate bulk. Was he imaging the pair of copper colored eyes gleaming at them?
"I will check the mountain for an escape and find you again."
A beckoning cry sounded close by.
"Don't follow the voices."
The strong presence dissipated, but the light remained. Bunny's mind was finally clear enough to recognize that this wasn't a dream. He swallowed against a scratch in his throat and spoke.
"Generally good advice, not following strange voices. Kinda ironic coming from a strange voice..."
"Bunny!" And he was being crushed, arms clenching tight around him as a slightly damp cheek rubbed against the fur of his head.
"Oy, I need ta breathe, mate."
Jack just laughed in a strange, choked way and held him still for a moment longer. Bunny could feel the thudding of Jack's heart. He nudged the boy gently under the chin in reassurance.
When Jack released the death grip and smoothed a hand once over Bunny's head, careful of his ears, Bunny spoke again.
"So, we're in a cave with disembodied voices. And snakes."
Jack laughed again. This time it sounded a little less desperate and a little more delighted. He began walking in the opposite direction of the most recent call for 'help'.
"And yet we're significantly better off than we were before." Jack quipped.
The frost spirit quickly updated him. They had been wandering in the cave for about 20 minutes, and he'd already discovered three tunnel entrances out of the maze. The openings had been completely blocked by thick webs that seemed unbreakable, extremely adhesive and burningly acidic to the touch. Oh, and jostling the strands seemed to summon a swarm of spider-riding wasps on the other side, ready to attack any entangled victim.
"Super-glue acid webs."
"Caves full of deadly magic snakes."
"And don't forget the disembodied voices calling us to our doom."
"Right. Who comes up with this stuff?"
"We may never know."
Bunny shook his head. Then a drop of water hit his nose. Smelled like melting snow.
The Pooka summoned some energy and wiggled around slightly until he could see part of Jack's face. The kid definitely didn't look so well. Even in this dim light, Bunny could tell Jack's hair and eyes looked dull, and drips of water that didn't seem like sweat were running steadily down from his hairline. What's more, from what he could feel, the frost spirit's skin was more clammy than cool. And he realized what had been bothering him about their movement- Jack was walking with a limp.
A rapidly rotting tropical forest surrounded the cave-laced mountain in eastern Malaysia. As three airborne Guardians viewed it from above, the landscape seemed to move. It was filled to overflowing with buzzing and slithering things and flickering shadows. And as North, Tooth and Sandy swooped lower and brought their forces to bear on the sea of writhing pestilence, the scene suddenly seemed to get much fuller.
Streams of heavily armored yetis poured from snowglobe portals, smashing maces, pikes and axes into the bodies of any snake that slithered near.
Thousands of mini tooth fairies speared wasps with their beaks, ripped wings apart and kicked eyes out. Hundreds more flew over the mountain where the forest Orang Bunian fairies had told them Jack and Bunny were trapped. The mini Tooths were searching for a viable entrance.
Dreamsand flew through the air in every direction, knocking out wasps and snakes by the swarm.
The Guardians had already spotted the sickly beating heart of the problem, and they lost no time closing in on Bimari from the air on sleigh, wing and cloud as their helpers cleared a path.
They could see the commanding spirit watching their descent with calm fascination.
When they were almost upon her, she raised some kind of pole in the air and a biting blizzard slammed into them, sending them back and crashing to the ground.
Sandy right himself and stared.
Tooth shook ice from numb wings in shock.
North climbed free of the toppled sleigh and growled, as they all three began to piece together the implications.
That was a lot of Winter power.
"Jack…" Dread filled Tooth's voice.
"Yes, I'm enjoying the main course, but like I said, I don't mind a few more sweet morsels along the way." Bimari mockingly called them closer with a gracious gesture of hospitality, as if they were dinner guests. She grinned maniacally as she pulled a small snake from her arm and flash froze it solid. She licked it and bit off the tail, like it was a popsicle. "I've developed a taste for cold things."
Jack felt that swirling feeling again, and his steps faltered as the room spun. He slowed his pace until the vertigo passed then lengthened his stride again.
He was trying to think clearly but it was all just a jumble of half-formed thoughts. He felt wilted with fatigue, and the vagueness of the surrounding world was nothing short of distracting. Everything was locked up inside, including his ability to connect with the elements around him. He could hear the water dripping from stalactites but couldn't feel the drops as they moved. Could smell the strange intermixings of old, stale cave air and the occasional fresh whiff of outside air, but couldn't tell where any of it was coming from or how the tiny swirls were moving around him.
His Winter core was a contradiction unto itself- it seemed to be bloated without the usual outlet and yet it was being drained away in slow and uncomfortably hollow pulls that he was trying not to react to.
"Were you bitten or stung?"
Jack blinked out of his achy haze. He rubbed a hand over the blue fabric at the top of his hoody, comforted by the warm weight it held. It took him a moment to actually process the words.
"Nah, just a little scratch on my foot from that one that jumped at us when we were flying. Nothing major."
A miniature Pooka paw reached up and wiped some of the water from Jack's chin.
"Uh-huh. A little elvish coronation headgear might have been useful in such a situation, eh mate?"
Jack's mind cleared for a moment as he laughed, so relieved that Bunny seemed to be recovering and coherent. Seemed to be. But his own foot was throbbing and he was experiencing more frequent dizzy spells. If he was feeling like this with such a small dose, what must Bunny be going through? And he hadn't shown any signs of returning to full size yet, so that wasn't good...
Jack pulled the small furry body free of his hoodie for yet another check. The wounds had all healed over and the eyes were clear, if weary, and it felt like the fever was almost gone...
"Calm down, Frostbite, I'm fine."
"Ya bit that constrictor, didn't you?"
Jack cleared his throat and pointedly didn't respond, carefully wiggling the rabbit back in place under his outer shirt.
"Besides. It suits you," Bunny said stubbornly, crawling immediately out of the hoodie to stand on Jack's shoulder. He was studying the pale face as he assumed a better viewing angle and placed a tiny grey paw on Jack's temple. Whether to keep his own balance or get some kind of reading on Jack, the younger spirit couldn't tell. The green eyes apparently didn't like what they saw, since they started glaring. "You're a real pain, y'know that?"
"Yup!" Cheerful confirmation of an insult equals more grumpy Bunny, Jack thought with a grin. Both entertaining and useful to keep said Pooka's determination and energy up.
"Ya didn't use any of the medicine on yourself first, did you? Ya drongo..."
"Come on, Bunny it's just a scratch," Jack knew better after what Tooth had told him about the venom, and apparently his casual delivery was unconvincing as Bunny scowled. Jack fought a giddy laugh, because little Bunny managed to look cuddly even when he was all mad, his ears flicking a punishment against Jack's hair that he barely felt. The feeling tickled over into a sustained sense of mirth as his head grew lighter.
"I can't believe you came up with a pun…" Jack crowed. "Frostbite…"
The Pooka rolled his eyes and crossed his arms unrepentantly.
"I mean, I know you're all out of sorts, lil bun, but was that perchance an attempt at… humor?" Was he slurring a little? Nah...
"Nothing funny about any of this." Bunny was definitely glaring now, but it was laced with concern.
"Well you got that right, your routine definitely needs work."
"Your brain needs work."
"Aw, c'mon… humor me."
Jack's laugh at his own joke bounced from the cave walls, and it seemed to ease Bunny's tension somewhat. The boy paused as they heard a voice, beseeching and compelling, calling from a tunnel opening to their left. Jack broke stride briefly, but then proceeded resolutely along their previous trajectory. He quickened his limping pace as a hissing sound responded from a little ways behind them before turning down the tunnel with the Orang Bunian.
They walked in silence for a few moments before Jack realized he was murmuring aloud.
Green eyes glanced over at the young Guardian's pondering face. Bunny began looking abashed but Jack continued.
"I like it! Sounds kind of cool, like a super hero name. It feels different than any of the other things people have called me."
For some reason this made Bunny frown and look down as he shifted uncomfortably on Jack's shoulder. He hunched down and nestled a little closer, fitting pleasantly in the nook beneath the Fun Guardian's chin.
"Look, I shouldn't have called ya names-"
"No, no, this has a lot of potential for a good catch phrase. We should all have one, y'know- always thought you Big Four super hero types could use a little more pizazz in your delivery." Jack's eyes were glassier now and distant as he got lost in his thoughts. He stumbled and braced his hand on the cave wall, leaving a damp handprint behind on the stone. "Imagine, I jump out, ice flying, and yell, 'Frost-bite-me!' and if they attack, I can snap, 'I Frost-bite-back!' and when I finish 'em off I'll do a really smug look and say 'Frost-bite-the-bullet!' And then I can call them a name like mangy cur- always liked that one, it's classic- or mix it up with one of yours, like ratbag, that sounds pretty nasty, a bag of rats, or-"
A grey paw clamped firmly over the sassy, rambling mouth.
"Terrible. Unspeakably horrible. Ya do that, any of that, even once and none of us will let you live it down. Ever. Augh!"
He glared at Jack in shock, holding up the paw he had just been using to halt offending words. A paw that that ankle-biter had just… bitten! Even if it wasn't hard enough to hurt, it-
"You get what you ask for!" Jack laughed at him before breaking into a skipping trot down the path. "So where should we be going? You're a bunny." Jack struck a pose. "The Easter Bunny!" Then he continued, steps wobbling. "You kinda get tunnels in general, right?"
Bunny sighed, but responded seriously. "Yes, and you're going in circles. Turn left here if ya really want to get deeper into the mountain."
Jack followed the suggestion and remained silent for awhile. Bunny surprised him by speaking first.
"I am a bunny now. But I didn't always look like this."
"Yeah, I know, you're usually a little taller."
"I didn't always look like that, either."
And although Jack stayed quiet waiting for a response, none came. Apparently it wasn't something Bunny wanted to talk about. Or maybe he didn't trust Jack enough to talk about it. The smile fell from his face and something uncomfortable settled in his chest.
Jack had trusted Bunny from his earliest days, could tell he was a decent person, it just never seemed to really go the other way. Regardless, the Pooka had been an important figure in his life and represented a lot of first lessons and experiences. So it wasn't surprising that his first frost creature had been a rabbit. Or that frost bunnies were the first ones he figured out how to sustain- what a simple idea to tie them to the power of the nearest Winter pillar to steady them! Once he'd figured that out, it was a simple matter to set up the games in close proximity to whatever column he was currently creating. Well. A simple matter until he thought about all the dangers. He pulled his thoughts quickly from that derailing train.
There was so much more that tied he and the Easter Guardian together, but… but Bunny wouldn't remember any of it, he realized. And for a moment the whole thing made him kind of angry. He didn't know what he was angry at exactly, though.
Jack paused as the tunnel opened up into a smallish cave. He moved slowly over to a wall and sat, waiting for the current swirling feeling to stop. It lasted a long time, making him squeamish and disoriented and very tired.
He hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes, but he clearly had since he was now opening them and looking at a worried mini-Bunny perched on his knees. He immediately tried to stand, but Bunny put a paw to his chest.
"Easy. Just rest a minute."
That sounded like a good idea. He leaned back against the cave wall, staring up at the ceiling. The ache in his foot had turned to real pain and it was spreading higher. His leg felt on fire. He tried to distract himself with other thoughts.
Well, he had broken it with the recent Easter fiasco. But things were going better now. Maybe… he could demonstrate trust first, one more time, now that Bunny would actually remember it. Maybe he could… oh! A shared memory. Showing a memory of their joint past would show trust and help weave back together one of the many ties that had been snapped after a single use. And perhaps Bunny would finally see him better than the first time around.
You're better than that, Jack.
He glanced at the small version of the Pooka, who was standing watch on his legs. The adorable grey face was scrunched up in a frown as it looked vigilantly from one tunnel entrance to the next.
He could only watch as they were shredding and tearing and ripping into the little rabbit form, venom so powerful it was dissolving tissue as deeply as the fangs were biting, eating away at every part of Bunny's spasming form and Jack could do nothing. His own scaly bonds drew tighter and tighter as a silent scream grew louder and louder in his mind. He looked into green eyes, rapidly dulling. He could hear the scream there, too, and knew that when it stopped there would be nothing left of the Easter Guardian.
He had killed Hope. He had killed Bunny. He had killed his friend.
The taste of blood. Jack inhaled, and it felt like a first breath as his eyes began to see a cave dimly lit with a fairy light rather than a serpent-covered battlefield. He stared at the back of the small furry creature perched atop his knees and just breathed for awhile, tongue absently running over the place where he'd bitten through his cheek.
He couldn't keep doing this. Leaving them blind to the dangers and yet tied to them by proxy.
"This isn't just about you, y'know. This is definitely a bigger problem, an' not one ya need to carry on your own."
The problem was bigger, but he couldn't rely onthem. They would put themselves in more danger trying to help. Simply reaching out to him had almost gotten two of them killed, imagine if they actually tried to engage directly with his problems. And he couldn't live another 300 years of punishment because he again failed to own his responsibilities and earn his place.
The support they were offering wasn't his to take.
He almost jumped when Bunny flicked a long ear and spoke softly.
"Why are ya being attacked. Why you?" Though the comment indicated he was talking to Jack, Bunny was clearly talking to himself.
There were so many pieces to that question. Some he wasn't able to share yet- he could only tell them about the pillars when they were finished. When he could show them that they were not only necessary but manageable. When he had taken his punishment and shown he could 'do better'.
"No going back, we're connected like a snake to it's tail. No 'my' problems. They're ours."
And that itself was the problem. He wasn't able to keep that punishment to himself.
...shredding and tearing and ripping into the little rabbit form...
Why? He didn't know why all these spirits were going extra crazy, especially around him. But he assumed… it was at least partially because of this Winter burden he carried. Everyone seemed to want a little extra elemental power right now, and he had always been an easy target.
But until he knew more of those 'why's', he wouldn't be able to anticipate and contain the danger. He needed to face the fact that he was still messing up. He needed to do what he could to minimize the damage now. And then figure out what to do next.
If he wasn't doing a good job of containing yet, he should at least do what he could to equip the others for the back splash they were receiving.
He knew they had questions about his elemental nature that directly tied to the current crises. Maybe that was something he could share. Show what it was like when he had discovered his piece of Winter power and started to get it under control in his earliest days. Show the danger and that… and that he was capable of doing something about it.
Seeing the first time he had really touched the raw elemental power should answer enough questions. And then they could decide for themselves. What to do with him. Whether he was useful enough to be worth the risk. Whether to stay. And… and if they didn't… well… they'd probably be safer. And that would be… would be good.
He couldn't deny how much fear he felt at the idea of being left completely alone again, though. It churned sickly in his stomach.
"But what if what you fear is real?"
"Ya face it just the same…"
Jack bit his lip and stared uncertainly at the Pooka. Who was currently small and injured because of him, but still… protecting him. As Bunny would any useful member of his team.
He summoned his courage and cleared his mind. He owed Bunny what explanation he could offer for their current predicament, and it stemmed back to those elemental questions. He would show them the beginning. The only answers he was able to provide now.
Jack ran his thumb back and forth over his staff, trying to ignite those courage embers into a flame. He found a little hope to add kindling- he did want a stronger relationship with Bunny after centuries of unraveling, and maybe the best way to build the necessary trust was to share a little of their own joint history. Oh… and with the way Tooth had changed the spell, wouldn't he finally get to see what Bunny had been thinking?
"You know, you were the first person I talked to after I became Jack Frost. Well- I think you were the first real person."
Bunny turned and gave him an exasperated but undeniably curious look. "You're going to have to explain that a little better, Frostbite."
Jack couldn't help a smile at the name. It kept giving him this little thrill each time Bunny said it. A friendly nickname, something Bunny had chosen for him.
He waved a hand in invitation. "Just ask."
The Pooka's exasperated expression turned a shade softer at the smile, then he scrunched his brow.
This was huge. Jack was offering to share a memory himself. One that would not only finally show him how the two of them had started off, but if he asked right, might provide some of those desperately needed answers to their current biggest problem.
Jack was walking around with a target on his back, and the terrifying reality was that they didn't know what to do about it. How could they protect him from something they couldn't even begin to understand?
He had seen more of a scared, hurt Jack in the past few days than he ever cared to see again. That kind of pain on this young face - innocent, playful and sincere, a face that glowed with contagious joy when it smiled - was absolutely unacceptable.
He studied Jack's tired expression, the tightness around the eyes, the drops of melt water that were dripping down his flushed skin. And that smile.
But they were too ignorant to do anything effective about it right now. Even Jack himself- maybe especially Jack. And he had a sinking feeling that this ignorance had been preying on the boy since day one, leaving him unbelievably vulnerable.
He knew Jack had been hidden by a veil, but how long had he gone as a new spirit before he encountered someone? Did he just wander around, unsure of his own existence for a long time? Knowing even a little of Jack's insecurities made him dread the answer, but he had to know.
And… he'd finally begin to learn a little of his own past with the kid. Was that excitement or anxiety he was feeling?
Turning to face Jack fully, he carefully chose how he would ask the question the newest Guardian was allowing so he could get as much information as possible.
"How long was that, anyway, before you had someone to-" Let you know you were real? Break the silence? Give you a clue about the world? "-talk to? And- and who did ya talk to that wasn't a real person?"
And instantly he was taken somewhere far away and long ago...
It had been a little over a year since he had been created, and Jack had already learned a lot.
He had learned his name. He learned he was invisible, possibly nonexistent. He learned he could fly and had a friend in Wind. He learned so much about the world, since he had now flown all the way around it several times, stopping in lots of different locations. He learned he could make frost and snowflakes, pretty much couldn't help it. He learned he could help it a bit if he tried hard, but that wasn't very fun. He loved doing it- a purpose in the action even if he couldn't quite understand what that purpose was. He learned there were beautiful sounds, notes that wove together to tell the story of each moment in the world.
But he also learned that silence separating him from people was lonely and painful and a terrible thing to face every day. He learned the Moon would no longer talk to him after that first time. He learned humans would not talk to him, could not even hear or see him. He noticed other beings, usually at a distance, but none of them seemed to notice him, either. He learned he was alone. And he didn't like it. At all.
There was only one time any person in the world had seemed to acknowledge his existence.
There was one being who had spoken back.
Nine months after he had taken his first breath, Jack had been standing on the ice of his birth pond- he could tell it wanted to naturally melt, but couldn't in his presence. He was staring at the spot where he had emerged that first night, wondering. What was down there, beneath the ice? Where had he come from, what was he made of? Why was he here? Did he actually exist? Why? These questions burned in his mind more fiercely as each day went by until he became somewhat obsessed. The joy of exploring his abilities and all the new things he was getting to know - Wind was a particular delight and challenge - kept things interesting and he didn't mind trying to figure those things out on his own. In fact, it was pretty fun. But there was an empty and terrified feeling that was getting stronger with each day, intruding rudely in moments of joy, that seemed to tell him he was, essentially, pointless.
He tapped the end of his staff solidly against the ice, trying to at least chip away at it, but any flecks that flew free were quickly replaced by frost. He had to get down there. See where he came from. It was the only place he knew to look for answers.
With no signal, no sound, no shift of the air, Jack realized that there was someone else there, behind him. Spinning around, staff at the ready - not that he knew what use it could be against another being other than to make them cold - the new winter spirit faced… a giant. He craned his neck, looking up, even though they were a few yards apart.
Twenty-five feet tall, at least, with a body so black it was like looking into a void, the shape so dark and indistinct, Jack wouldn't have been able to tell if it was clothed or not. Yet there was a constant glow emanating from him as well, a line of light that outlined the figure like the first distant light peeking over the horizon. The only contrast were his eyes- stark, solid white, with no pupil or iris save for a single thin round circle of blue. And apparently he could talk.
"You are a fool. " Jack was unnerved as he realized he couldn't tell if the voice, so whispery, deep and strangely accented he could barely follow, was actually audible or just filling his mind directly. "And so ignorant I cannot see a future for this world. But that was a slim hope anyway."
"Yeah, well, who are you? How do you know anything about me?" When I do not know myself?
The dark face and burning white eyes loomed closer and Jack struggled to stay put and not back away.
"I am here," A huge black finger poked Jack's chest, knocking him back onto the ice. As the boy scrabbled to stand, the giant continued. "In you. But not for long. This is the only time we will meet."
While a shallow thought - that's fine with me, you're creepy - flitted briefly through his mind, there was some deeper instinct that was concerned by this explanation. Something that said one encounter was not enough, not nearly enough, especially when he didn't know what to do with this singular opportunity. Even if it was a figment of his own imagination.
"There is not much you need to know from me. Only everything you will have to learn yourself. And that is the point. You are new, you are meant to be different. An experiment. For what the world needs now." The face finally backed up as the figure stood straight again, head tilted slightly as if assessing. "It will be difficult. Painful. You will almost certainly fail. And the world will be cast into burning darkness until only ashes remain."
A heavy weariness seemed to settle across the form in front of Jack, and he could feel it in his own chest. A deep, deep fatigue. The remnants of a long battle with despair, held back only by a relentless, stoic resolve. Who was this creature? Something in Jack stirred in response to the weight of the other spirit's emotions. Jack's own kind of resolve.
"What is it I am supposedly meant to do?" Jack shoved against the feeling of despair with the few memories he had- the joy of flying, the beauty of frost, the hush of snow and the smiles it brought to young faces with the promise of sledding and snowball fights. Tiny snowflakes, towering mountains. The thrill and beauty of life in this world- old trees, young flowers, amazing animals, clever people. The confusion of cruelty and darkness, but pure belief in profound goodness and purpose glimpsed in a handful of simple acts in just a few months. The large figure gave a start and went still as he absorbed Jack's feelings in return.
"And what do I need to know to do it? How will I know?" Jack took a step forward with each question, stamping his staff firmly on the ice and spreading a radius of perfect frost with each move.
And in the same way he had known this other being's despair, he could feel the shift to surprise, amusement and wonder, then shock at the unfamiliarity of these feelings.
"I see. Already," The voice had grown both softer and clearer, taken on a sort of energy. "You are who you are. I see. Lunar would not risk so much without great faith in you. And it seems Music has chosen you as well, that is… unexpected. Or perhaps obvious."
Jack blinked and stared harder because he was beginning to see the trees across the pond straight through the massive dark body. The figure nodded and then sat, holding out a hand to the youth before him. "I have almost no time, my existence is spent. I can only tell you two things, although you can learn certain basics from your staff if you pay attention. It will act as a harness and safe conduit in the meantime." Jack trotted over, his instincts telling him to run because this was important and there was not a moment to lose. The smaller spirit climbed into the large palm without hesitation. He was lifted to the level of the unreadable, blurred lines of the being's face.
"When the time comes, you will be able to prove yourself my successor with two signs. First, the obedience of Wind, who will take no other master." Jack frowned. Obedience? Master? A stubborn rebellion flickered in him- Wind was a friend. The giant shook his head, obviously aware of these thoughts. "You are a fool. But you are different, and must find your own way," he conceded.
"Second, you alone will be able to hold the power of Winter self-contained and in perfect balance. Permanent and untouchable, the last defense." The hand not holding Jack stretched out and wrapped around a nearby tree, which was instantly coated in a thick layer of crystal clear ice. The young spirit realized two things simultaneously. That ice would not melt or burn with cold without his command. And he already knew how to create it himself, with no instruction, the knowledge instinctually transferred.
"Here is what I cannot tell you. I cannot tell you how to live and learn and become what you must to take your place in this world or create its future. Even were I to try, I would be doing you a disservice - it was very intentional, that you were made differently, aligned differently in every way. I cannot tell you how to face the dangers, cruelty and solitude you will likely endure, with the contradiction of your being and how you were placed here.
"But I can tell you…" The pure white eyes with their hint of blue studied the small, uncertain boy perched on inky palm intently. "If indeed there is anything that can be done to repair the damage, you are who you need to be. Seek your purpose. But be wary. This world's spirits have become so corrupted and corroded I no longer recognize them. Once, I was the darkest point, the most cruel and feared. Now, there are many who have far exceeded me. You have been given certain protections - cruel in their own way, but necessary. Without them you would have been consumed on your first day by any number of beings, if not shattered by the transition itself."
Jack had been focusing so intently on trying to understand the words, he hadn't realized the surface he was standing on was fading. He gasped as he began to fall through the rapidly disappearing hand, before clumsily calling Wind to catch him. She responded instantly and they struggled for a moment to understand each others' intentions before he was lifted back to face the titanic spirit.
A single dark chuckle sounded as the large being admonished, "It really is easier to command than consult her."
Jack just glared. He somehow knew the other being smiled at him, and he was aware that it was an egregiously rare thing.
"Farewell, little Winter. Find your way and shine in the world, else all be lost to darkness."
And with little more than a whisper in the air, the giant spirit vanished. Jack felt something shift inside him, as well. Something he hadn't even noticed before was now gone, and something else… something that had been muted, now lay uncovered and raw. He closed his eyes to concentrate and tentatively reached for it-
It was like touching pure electricity. Searing blue-white light flashed out of him without even needing a conduit and crashed over the pond and all the trees nearby. Stumbling back and clutching his staff, Jack looked around with wide eyes. His first thought was that he was immensely grateful there hadn't been anyone else around. He would have killed them. Everything in a 50 foot radius was completely covered in this… permanent ice. His heart skipped a beat as he immediately tried to pull the ice back. And was shocked when it worked. The ice vanished, leaving only a slight mist in its wake.
His attention returned to the seemingly endless pool inside him again, and he let it wash over him. A wild eagerness filled him to use this heady power. How had he been content to simply make little frost patterns and scatter a few snowflakes?! This deep, deep, deep, wide, wonderful energy needed to be used, to spread across the Earth, to make everything beautiful and preserve it in its best form!
From the moment he had taken that first breath, he had been aware of the elements of his surroundings- the shifts in air, the flow of water, the slow, solid hum of the earth, the fire that burned deep within it, and the strange sparks of life around him- but suddenly that increased ten-fold and the whole world was screaming at him.
Or maybe he was the one screaming. Or was he laughing? It was upsetting Wind, either way, she was shaking him rather hard, but that just seemed funny. He could feel everything building up inside and was aware that there was a really bright blue-white light coming from somewhere. Oh wait, that was him again. It just made him laugh harder. Or was that screaming? Everything was so loud he couldn't tell.
Without him noticing or requesting it, Wind had picked him up with surprising force and shot above the clouds before breaking into insane speeds- they did that thing where sound changed and he could barely hear himself.
Then every sense was just gone and all he knew was a burning roar for awhile before something exploded from him in every direction.
Sight returned and Jack saw he was falling from a height a couple hundred feet over… destruction. It had clearly been a desolate landscape to begin with, jagged snowy mountains and a scraggly pine forest with only the hardiest of creatures struggling to survive the arctic clime, no humans for many miles. And now it was all shattered and coated with a 20 foot deep carpet of permanent ice. The nearby mountain had been half obliterated, rocks trapped in ice where they had been tumbling down its newly sheered sides. The forest was flattened and smashed into kindling, fanning out from the point directly below him. And he knew, could sense- there was no longer a single living thing for miles in any direction.
In the immediate recoil of this release, rational awareness returned and Jack, no staff in hand, fell hard to the ground despite Wind's attempts to slow him, paralyzed with horror at a glimpse of what he had done. Lying on the ice, air knocked from his lungs, Jack trembled. When he finally managed to gasp in a breath, it was instantly released in a sob of terror as he could feel the power building back up, slamming back into his limbs from his core. No, no, no!
Wind, still frantically howling, flung Jack's staff at him from where it had fallen. He clenched it to his chest, desperate, and immediately sensed the way the uncontrollable energy was harnessed, but not diminished or any less intent on release than before. Still, it gave him a path. And this time he knew he was screaming as he pushed with everything he had to put. It. Back. This terrible power that would tear him apart and the world with it.
And the only part of it that he understood, this knowledge of permanent ice that had been passed on to him, he used to transform the last of the energy trying to escape into a seal to cap it all off and lock it away inside himself.
He thought he was definitely going to die, to blow up, because everything was straining against that seal and his own veins had gone dry but then… a small trickle seeped through the barrier as if through a filter and bubbled back into his body and he could breath.
Despite all that chaos that had just passed, and the remaining ringing in his mind, things actually felt only a little different than they had before this whole thing started. The pulse of Winter through his flesh, his ability to sense nature - stronger and sharper than before, but definitely far less than full power - were stable once more. Added to that was a new awareness of this sealed pit of power he was not going to be touching again anytime soon.
And he hadn't in the half a year since. Jack sighed at these memories, and checked yet again that the chasm was firmly locked tight. Caution was stronger than curiosity when dealing with this sea of Winter constantly persuading to be released.
So, he had had one single real conversation in that first year, and it had been with a now-gone part of himself, apparently. And all he'd gotten was enigmatic, rubbish advice and the burden of intense, unusable strength. Hooray for him.
The young spirit had once again returned to the little village of Burgess, a place that called to him, people he was beginning to get to know, despite the one-sided nature of their interactions. It must be Sunday, he absently mused as he heard the ringing of the small church bell that was used to gather the handful of families. He sat on a rock beside the pond that was still frozen and watched the snowflakes add to the blanket that had been growing since he had gotten here last night, feeling uncharacteristically listless. He was no closer to finding out where he was from or what he was here for, just continued to carry the knowledge that he now had good reason to fear part of himself. And although he found many amusements and wonders in the world, at the end of the day was emptiness. He just… he wanted someone. Anyone. He'd even take Mr. Creepy Giant.
He slipped off his rock and knelt in the snow, scooping up handfuls to create little snow people- he was getting good enough that he could actually make them look kind of like specific villagers.
It took him a moment to pay attention to the shifting of air, but then he realized something was moving towards his position, fast. Faster and moving differently than a human usually did. And… he glanced in the direction he could feel the movement coming from. This something just felt weird in general, different in the way the elements responded to it. Blurring into them around the edges rather than standing out as a sharply defined object. Huh.
Curious, he kept a portion of this attention on the creature's movement as he continued making a snow figure of his favorite villager. A little girl who seemed so sad and kept visiting the pond. Kind of like him, really.
Jack sat up a little straighter as the being approached, and into the clearing bound a giant grey… rabbit?
As the large bunny glanced around the clearing, Jack studied him. He was one of the most impressive things Jack had encountered so far. Quickly taking in the details of patterned fur, long velvet ears, the powerful way he carried himself, the strange harness and equipment he wore, Jack hurriedly scooped up more snow and began fusing the flakes together, wanting to capture the image before the amazing creature dashed off again.
In that moment it wasn't just Jack's memory anymore. Fragments of Bunny's memory slowly began to weave themselves together with Jack's until both their impressions established a flow, with different thoughts coming through from both sides, some more dominant than others. Jack took it in with a sense of wonder as he began to experience Bunny's former thoughts and emotions.
Bunny was so irritated it actually took him a moment to notice the small winter spirit, pale as his surroundings and dressed in a brown that blended in with the rock he was sitting beside. So this was the one who had layered the area with an unnatural coating of snow and ice. He had known it was a Winter spirit's work the second he emerged from his hole and smelled that specific nip in the air. The awful frozen precipitation may be a natural part of the preceding season, but purposely creating it here where it was supposed to be Spring and now on the biggest holiday of the season was an open act of aggression of the Winter court. He hadn't been expecting it with how quiet they'd been lately, but he should have been more vigilant.
Time to nip this in the bud. "Oy!"
His anger increased as the winter sprite merely glanced up, ignored him and continued… playing with his snow.
He stalked forward, a fighting stride, and saw startlingly bright eyes look up at his face for an instant and then down at his hind paws carrying him forward in a trajectory straight for the other spirit's position. The frost imp turned to look behind himself, then back at Bunny's advance, then back over his shoulder, looking puzzled. White hands paused for half a second, then scooped up the couple of lumps of snow he had been working with. He shifted himself a couple yards to the side. And then he just continued playing with the bloody snow. Bunny paused for a beat in his advance. Why would moving a few feet over make the sprite think he'd avoid trouble?
Frowning, he crouched down and took two long hops to land directly in front of the snow crafter, lowering his face to eye level.
The biggest, most vibrantly blue eyes he had ever seen stared back in unveiled shock as they met his green ones, like his presence and attention was unexpected or... something. What was wrong with him?
Bunny sniffed the lightly freckled face, observing the beginnings of a stunned smile appearing. The clear eyes blinked rapidly, and the face pulled back slightly.
Hm. Fresh snow. Some kind of pine-mint combination. Pond water. Electricity. Then lots of light layers of dirt, plants, animals, people, even. Very unusual for a Winter spirit. Nothing musty, no death or decay, and not a hint of that smell a spirit got when it had been tainted by the shadows. He straightened, crossing his arms.
"You're new." This changed things. Slightly.
Jack could only gape up at him for a moment, the beginnings of hope painfully stirring in his chest as a grin spread across his face. The giant-awesome-bunny-man could see him and was talking to him. One single clear and beautiful note rang through his mind, a sound of purest joy. Not alone.
"Right, I get that, mate, but that's no excuse for this," Bunny gestured around at the snow and frozen ground, "On my holiday. I'm not going ta fall for the innocent act - who exactly sent ya?"
Jack drank in the words, not really understanding what the rabbit meant but not caring whatsoever. Solitude was broken, and he was reassured that everything was going to be okay in his life.
"The moon." It was the only answer he knew.
"Hah. Right. Clever one, are ya?"
Jack had heard children talk about this person, but more than that - he just knew. "You're… you're the Easter Bunny." And you can see me.
"Or not." Bunny sighed, rolling his eyes. Great. Winter spirits, came in two varieties, in his experience. Completely cruel or, occasionally, simply daft. This kid was obviously on the daft end of the spectrum. Was it even worth his time to discuss anything?
Jack jumped up, staff in hand, balancing on his toes in wild excitement. The kids loved the Easter Bunny! Last year he had seen how much fun the children had hunting down his hidden eggs. Think of all the games they could play together, and he had felt how fast he was, they could race and- ahhh, so many things. Ohhh! Snowball fight! Yes, that's the best way to start!
Bunny observed the obviously open, enthusiastic look. Fine, he'd at least try. The Pooka changed his tone as if he was talking to a child - which he realized, as he tilted his head and looked at the sprite, this one kind of was.
"Yes. I'm the Easter Bunny. And what does the Easter Bunny do? Bring Hope. To children especially. You know how he does that? He hides beautiful, magical chocolate Easter eggs all around the world to remind them there's always something to hope for and new opportunities ta discover," the Pooka gestured around with his paws to illustrate his distribution of the small gifts, "Eggs for the ankle-biters to find come Easter morning. That's today, mate. You know what makes egg hunts difficult?"
Bunny scooped up a handful of snow, ignoring the twinge of anxiety the material elicited upon contact, and snapped an icicle off a branch nearby. He indicated each as he said, "Ice. And sno-"
Just as he was looking back up, a snowball smacked into his face. For one moment, a very simple, pure desire to laugh floated through him. Then panic and rage shattered the feeling.
Jack was floating a couple feet off the ground, grinning in anticipation, waiting to see if the Easter Bunny would launch his own snowball next or chase after him - fun fun fun…
But there was no fun in the green eyes that were revealed as melting slush dripped down the furry face. The smile had barely begun to drop from Jack's face when he found himself grabbed by his shirt and slammed into a tree with a boomerang pressing into his throat. His staff fell to the ground as he instinctively reached up to grab both grey wrists. A coating of frost immediately dusted the arm fur.
O-okay, so he can do more than just see me. Jack's amazement at being able to touch and be touched was smothered by bewilderment at the Easter spirit's reaction. It was just snow? That's not a bad thing, right?
Bunny had stiffened, obviously fighting for control. And Jack saw two simple things in his eyes.
What was wrong? Didn't matter. That look hurt.
"I'm sorry." Sincere. Compassionate.
Something recoiled in the green eyes. Bunny dropped him and backed up a couple of steps.
Bunny looked at Jack, the shock from his own reaction and the responding apology numbing him. He flexed his paws. None of this was right. Winter was not kind. It was not innocent.
He- he did not have time for this, certainly not today. And it wasn't his responsibility, anyway- this was elemental business. Sephi's business.
He shook the chill out of his arms where the Winter spirit had touched him, eager to shed the despised ice flecks. His face twisted in disgust as they fell to join the white coating on the ground. Just give the order, further explanation is obviously pointless.
"I don't care what you have to do to work it out with Spring, but have the decency to keep Easter clear. For the children. You think you can manage that?" Bunny glared.
Oh. OH! Here it was. A reason for his (non)existence. He, Jack Frost, could help with Easter, make it nice for the egg hunts. Bringing joy and hope to children. Even if they couldn't see him, this, this was something meaningful he could do, and for his favorite kind of people - little ones! How fun! And then he could hang out with someone who could see him, would talk with him. Maybe he could even teach the Easter Bunny to enjoy a snowball fight eventually, because this guy obviously didn't know how to have fun yet. Which was really tragic.
A beautiful, genuine hope began to build inside him, easing the old emptiness gently aside and creating a happy melody.
A desire to impress the Spirit of Easter filled him. Jack looked back up with a determined smile.
"Of course I can." Probably.
Bunny mentally groaned. Great, this kid was daft and youthfully arrogant. He probably didn't even know what he was doing. Well. He'd let Sephi know. She could figure it out, this was her territory, anyway. Another glance at the boy's excited puppy face, a twinge of guilt at his earlier reaction, and he decided he could also probably pop by when he had more time and explain a little better. Hey, if there was one Winter spirit in the world who wasn't completely terrible, that was worth paying attention to. He could only imagine what the Winter court would do with this kind of innocence.
"Good. See that you do." He quickly turned away, thumping the ground to open a hole as he realized how behind schedule he was now.
"No, WAIT!" Jack cried as the furry, long ears disappeared down the hole, quickly replaced by the smooth ground and a vibrant blue and white flower.
"What do I do?" he whispered, staring at the blossom.
Bunny blinked away the white and just sat immobile for a moment. There was so much to process.
First, the horror of Jack's introduction to what he was. He could tell that Jack didn't understand what it meant, then or now, but the Pooka was beginning to. And it was very, very concerning.
The melting frost spirit he currently faced was possibly Winter itself.
His mind raced back to his conversation with Demi.
After listening to Bunny's basic elemental questions, she confirmed what Bunny already suspected.
Jack was an unusual combination of powerful and precise elemental abilities and an instinctual, aspirational connection to people. At the time, he had kept the conversation casual and the descriptions somewhat off-handed and vague, not specifying that he was asking about any spirit in particular- he wasn't taking more chances with things as unsettling as they currently were. The less intel anyone outside of their group had about the inner workings of Jack Frost, the better, Bunny figured. But he had gotten some basic answers from her reactions.
She had seemed thoughtful when he described the scope of the frost spirit's natural senses, and he was grateful that she didn't pry for more details than he offered. The combination was unusual in its comprehensiveness, and more indicative of an ancient spirit than one of the newest, she said. But the description of his connection with the emotions and living presence of people especially surprised her. It wasn't something she could explain at all. That was Aspiration territory, wasn't it?
Her information on the turmoil of the spirit world was decidedly more illuminating. Though she had little contact with others as she remained immersed in her season, she had described feeling waves of heat and cold that spiked outside of nature's inherent processes for awhile now. The heat always seemed to come first, but was usually cooled by a steady, soothing chill that rebuffed it without destruction. Usually. The heat spikes and tremors in the earth had grown worse in recent decades, and sometimes a different arctic power would snap back before or in spite of the calm cooling.
Perhaps that was it. If Jack was what Bunny now thought he was, his mere presence may have been serving as a balancing center - a center that was now being caught in the crossfire of two opposite forces that seemed determined to engage in conflict.
A pit of frustration was growing in his stomach again. Jack was not going to be able to sit on the sidelines with whatever storm seemed to be brewing, and he had been so very ill-prepared. Probably had only half-formed ideas about the order of their world because no one had been there to tell him anything. Which brought him to the second point.
He, Bunny, had been the first spirit Jack had ever trusted. The kid had looked up to him. Appreciated Easter and children. From day one. Their relationship - Jack's life - could have been so different without his unwarranted, misdirected suspicion and resentment. And that bloody veil that had removed the opportunity to learn better. Although... this definitely threw the question of the veil into a whole new light.
But the only real silver lining was that he had obviously forgotten to direct Sephi to Jack. What a disaster that would have turned out to be.
"Kids like what I do." Jack's defensive line to him from the globe room took on whole other meaning. From their first encounter, Bunny had communicated pretty clearly that he did not.
Jack's chuckle broke him from these furious thoughts.
"You really don't like... snow. At all." The pale face was smiling but the blue eyes were hollow. Bunny felt ashamed that Jack had seen his prejudiced thoughts. Of course he'd feel hurt…
"I tried to do stuff with the weather for the Easters right after that, make it nice, but I really didn't know what I was doing yet, you were right. I kept messing everything up. Remember the flooding the following year?"
The boy continued rambling, but Bunny saw through it. He sighed and hooked a small paw into the neck of Jack's hoodie, pulling their faces closer.
"I was wrong, Jack. Those thoughts. Believing the worst by default. Assigning guilt by proxy. Making you wrong before I even gave ya a chance. Scorning and dismissing you. You didn't deserve that." The false smile had fallen from Jack's face as Bunny spoke with a conviction he was trying to push from his own green gaze into the glassy cerulean eyes. "Ya deserved-" Bunny faltered. A million words choked in his throat. Companionship. Guidance. Trust. Purpose. A family. Love.
Jack's lids flickered once, then a small, genuine smile appeared.
"You were really going to come back, weren't you? If you hadn't forgotten?"
Bunny took one look at that smile - hesitant and ready to drop if given a negative response - and groaned, putting a paw over his eyes and kneeding his brow.
Jack immediately scooped him up, concerned.
"Are you feeling worse?"
"No, ya bloody stupid idiot, I'm not feeling worse." He beat a little paw against Jack's forehead in frustration, then paused. "Well not undeservedly worse." The boy was now looking decidedly confused.
Bunny couldn't help a self-deprecating chuckle then as he realized how baffling this brief conversation had already turned out to be and how much they truly had to work out. A single memory was probably the tip of the iceberg.
An iceberg he had never been more determined to face up to.
He opened his mouth, calmer, but they both froze at the sound of a hiss disturbingly close by.
Jack scrambled to his feet, an arm locking Bunny to his chest. He swayed once, then ran for the opposite tunnel.
"Let me down, I can run on my own now!" Bunny called up. He was undoubtedly faster than Jack at the moment and could run interference.
But Jack simply pulled Bunny away from his chest and continued to run with the Pooka held out in front of him.
"Sorry. That's probably too cold, huh?" Jack was panting, face strained with the simple physical effort of running. The kid had obviously misinterpreted Bunny's words as stemming from discomfort, which didn't surprise him in the least given the recent memory revelations.
"No." He twisted in Jacks hands and gave a strong kick, launching himself onto the frost spirit's shoulder. The blue fabric now felt damp. Bunny hunkered close to shoulder, neck and chin, assertively making contact, but he kept his glare on the three snakes in pursuit, ready to attack any that came within striking distance.
The three Guardians returned to the present from Jack's early memory, and no one breathed for a moment.
Tooth, North and Sandy stared at each other, shock clear on all their faces.
They looked at Bimari who was frowning at the weird way they had all paused at the same time and obviously stopped focusing on her. The way their expressions had then almost instantly shifted from the anger and horror she had inspired to something more complex and deeply felt.
Their eyes widened at the spear of ice she was still clutching.
Ice created from power she was drawing from Jack.
Jack, who had a scary amount of power to draw from.
The stakes had just gotten a whole lot higher - not because their goal of rescuing their friends was any more important, but because it now seemed a lot more dangerous and difficult.
Tooth had explained about Bimari's venom, so it wasn't hard to piece together the implications. Direct assault would only speed Bimari's attempts at the full transfer. She would drain Jack's powers to use against them, growing steadily more powerful as they fought. The longer a sustained battle drew out the worse Jack's chances of survival. And by extension, theirs. And, oh yeah, the whole world probably.
A glance between them showed a shared thought.
Retreat. They needed a plan to take Bimari down in a single blow before the situation was exacerbated beyond repair.
Pitch practically flew through the door into one of his deepest chambers. Papers, books and scrolls lining the shelves of a ponderously long room marked it a library.
He laughed as he waltzed across the room to the far end.
He had been pacing for what felt like days as he watched events unfold through MON. Terribly impatient to go to the location of all the heady fear he was feeling, but knowing the right opportunity would arrive soon.
Now very soon. The Guardians, afraid and yet still so blind to the true dangers they should fear. And Jack… He had been sensing Jack's fears like a vibrant fireworks show the past few days, each new burst captivating, the display building with each disaster. All driving to that debilitating fear of self and unworthiness in one way or another. It was like Manny had spent 300 years preparing the perfect present for Pitch, packing the layers of flammable power and lighting a long fuse.
As exciting as it was predictable. He found himself murmuring some of Jack's lines along with him as he watched from MON. He relished the moments his own past words issued from the Winter spirit's mouth, felt it when the ideas he had planted slipped through the boy's mind, showing how deeply they had been carved into his soul. How they had become a centering Truth for the fragile psyche. How strong the connection between their cold and dark still was.
He had basked in the splendor… but now he was ready for action. Even purposely crossing this room, he was wrestling with impatience.
But he was patient. It tended to lead to his advantage. So, a little light reading to distract him while he waited for the swiftly approaching 'perfect moment'...
Maintaining a cursory connection to his surveillance system, Pitch sat in a chair pulled up to a massive pewter desk that stood cold, heavy and dull. He propped his feet up on a corner while he reached for the top right drawer. It clicked open, as it always did, obeying only his touch. He drew out a couple pieces of paper, a satisfied, smug smile arching across his face.
Boogey-man-do-you-need-a-better-nickname (or a disco outfit),
Actually, that's a good point, where did you get that name and do you even like it? You say it kind of weird, so I can't really tell.
I was thinking about fear today...
His feelings about this letter had changed after his initial rage at its impudence. It was during the sixth read through that he saw the potential. A potential that would play into his full plan beautifully.
But… that all seems to be a matter of what people do with fear.
"No, Jack, it's how one can use it."
Ah! The perfect moment was here at last! He sprang to his feet.
Oh, this was going to be Fun. Finally he could step on stage and steal the scene. Finally it was time to make a cameo appearance.
He concentrated and pulled the Scythe straight from MON, where only he could reach it. Relishing the weight of the smooth pole in his hand, he stretched his height to over eight feet without a thought. He then dropped swiftly into the shadows below him.
"Time to play the hero."
Jack is all depressed and teary, "I make a mess wherever I go."
Author is all, "Mwahahaha, I make a mess wherever I go!"
Raja Jinn Peri and the Orang Bunian are mythological beings from Malay folklore, and I'm already finding myself rather attached to them. Like… I want plushies of them. Except they're invisible, so, how even.
Did you like the little taste of seeing Jack and Bunny's past? Are you curious about Jack's origins (because you are far from having the full story at this point)? And oh MAN, how did he get started with Sephi, anyway?!
And Pitch, what are you doing?!