Present day: The mountain
One foot in front of the other.
It was the most boring mantra he’d ever hung onto, but if he didn’t, he was going to stumble and fall. Again. His legs didn’t want to cooperate. Jack’s whole world was reduced to the narrow path he navigated, the heavy weight on his back, snow that whipped around him.
It wasn’t even snow he had any hand in making. It wasn’t his snow. He wasn’t allowed to use his powers on this mountain. Wasn’t allowed to float or fly. Wasn’t allowed to make snow or frost.
He looked mutinously at Gwyn. He could only just make out the shape of him, made hard to see by the snow that was dumped enthusiastically by the blizzard. The snowstorm had dogged them for almost twenty four hours. Strapped to Gwyn’s back, Jack could see the shape of his own staff. Jack felt naked without it. He was used to holding it in one of his hands, and now his palms were bare. Even when he’d been human, he’d had the staff. He hadn’t expected to miss it so much, and it wasn’t even gone. Just bobbing up and down in time with the slow and steady steps of Gwyn up ahead.
He’d hated the treacherous mountain with a vengeance after the first six hours of walking on it. Gwyn, however, took climbing it in his stride. Literally. At one point he’d even mentioned feeling fortunate that he couldn’t fly like Jack could. He’d wisely kept his mouth shut when he saw Jack’s glare of response.
The broad leather strap that slung around one shoulder and tucked in across his ribs bruised him heavily. It chafed, cut into his skin. The sweatshirt he wore was the only thing that stopped his skin from breaking. The strap wasn’t designed for his slight build. It was designed for a taller, more muscular warrior. The sword’s weight against his back was never comfortable. No matter how often he adjusted the shoulder strap, no matter how often he shrugged his shoulders to shift it, he knew it wasn’t his.
But he was doing this so that he could maybe give something back to the person the sword belonged to. Jack hung onto that thought fiercely as he plodded, step by step.
One foot in front of the other.
He didn’t look down to his left. The sheer cliff dropped away from him. It was intimidating without his staff, with a sword unbalancing him. He would drop like a stone. Climbing the mountain had taxed him to the point where he wasn’t even sure if he could muster enough energy to get the wind to break his fall.
The day before, he’d wearily closed his eyes while walking, trusting his feet to find the path. But without his staff, with the sword on his back, he’d listed sideways and would have tilted all the way off the mountain if Gwyn hadn’t pulled him back and yelled at him to keep his eyes open. Even if he’d had his staff, and was allowed to make snow and ice and frost, he wouldn’t have been able to make much. He was so drained, putting so much effort into the path in front of him, into climbing and forcing a body ill-used to so much walking into days of it.
Sleep was a more constant companion than anyone else except Gwyn.
His life was strange now.
The blizzard was heavy, he could barely see six feet in front of him. Snow didn’t normally bother him, but that was when he could instinctively keep it away with wind. Now he was aware of how annoying it could be. At least it didn’t melt down his clothing, like it did with Gwyn. At least he didn’t need a fire at the end of the day, like Gwyn did when they made camp.
He fell heavily to one leg, flailing out with one hand and grabbing at a sharp, wet rock. He couldn’t fall down the side. He refused to look down. He had never been scared of heights before in his life, but this mountain was cruel. That was the point, Gwyn had told him. The wights they were going to visit didn’t like visitors. Getting to the summit was a quest in and of itself.
Jack hissed in pain when he felt two hands clutch tightly at his shoulders, pressing into bruises. Gwyn let go immediately. Jack was too tired to look up, too tired to do anything except make sure that he wouldn’t fall. He realised, belatedly, that he was still firmly centred on the path – such as it was – and removed his hand from the stone awkwardly. It felt like the sword was a boot on his back, pushing him down towards the ground.
‘You’re tired,’ Gwyn said, disapproving.
‘No, I’m good,’ Jack said, using the rising mountain face on his right to pull himself up. He fought back against the weight of the sword, the heaviness in his legs.
‘You have to tell me when you’re tired,’ Gwyn said, and Jack scowled at the narrow pathway as he heard anger creep into his voice. For all that the Seelie King went on about fitness, the mountain was wearing him down too. Or maybe it’s just babysitting the frost spirit that’s getting to him. ‘We could have made camp three hours ago. Now you’re going to have to wait. There’s nowhere to camp here. We have to keep moving.’
Jack bit his tongue. There was no use pointing out that Jack could technically camp anywhere, because the cold didn’t bother him. He’d pointed that out on the first day, and Gwyn had stared at him as though Jack had said something incredibly rude. After that, Jack let Gwyn choose the camp sites, let him build the fires, let him pick the places they would rest. At first he was grateful that Gwyn was leading him, showing him the way. But by the end of the first day he had to remind himself to be grateful.
Gwyn looked at him searchingly. Jack could almost hear all the stupid things Gwyn had told him in the days before they’d reached the mountain: You realise that you’re weak. We can’t use our powers on this mountain. We have to reach the summit in three days, or they won’t see us. They still may not work with you, even if we get there. There are other ways, and we will find them. You don’t even know if this will be effective. I am not sure if this will work. I have responsibilities to the Seelie Court, I hope you realise what you’re asking of me.
Jack walked again, stubbornly, gritting his teeth against the hardness in his heart, the retorts that waited in the base of his throat, the pain in his legs and shoulders. Gwyn nodded and turned around, and they both started plodding back up the mountain again.
Jack’s mental reply to so much of Gwyn’s early dissent was the same one he told himself.
No one else is gonna do it, so I’m going to. If you think you can talk me out of saving him, you’ve got another thing coming.
25 Days Earlier:
Static. A buzz of white noise. Ringing in his ears.
A giant hand stroked his shaking fingers with surprising tenderness. But why? Jack stared numbly at his fisted hand. It hurt. His leg was bleeding. His foot was bleeding. If he looked up, he’d see the Nain Rouge nearby, slumped on the ground. If he looked up, he’d see the exit the Nightmare King had left through. If he looked up...
He didn’t look up.
The giant hand was so tender though, so gentle. It stroked at his fingers over and over again, like soothing a horse, or a reindeer. Suddenly he knew who it was. He didn’t know when North had entered. He didn’t want North. He thought if he looked at North, he might start to cry.
He couldn’t cry. If he started, he’d never stop. If he started, he’d forget what he’d resolved to do. He’d let himself be coddled and looked after and all the things he’d always wanted and never knew how much he needed until only recently and now he couldn’t, no, because he’d forget. He’d let despair in. There was so much of it. Resolve was a spider’s thread inside of him, despair was a maelstrom. He had to keep them separate.
The stroking didn’t stop, and Jack responded to it by opening his fingers. Pain made his knuckles feel crunchy. He looked down at the locket, at Seraphina’s face. The metallic, charred edges of the locket had cut into his palm.
The stroking on his hands stopped, and then he felt those giant hands wrap around his torso to pull him upright. Jack’s spare hand moved out automatically to his staff, but it wasn’t there. A giant hand placed it carefully into his palm He sighed. That was familiar. The staff was familiar.
He stood up, looked down at the foot that was injured. Why was it injured? Where had all the lacerations come from? And then horror. He’d injured himself, he’d injured himself when the shadow had tried to-
No. Stop it. Not now.
Jack looked up slowly, carefully avoiding North’s gaze. The gymnasium was somehow – miraculously – still whole. He felt that after the events that had just occurred, the school shouldn’t be left standing. He wanted his environment to reflect what had been razed inside. And then he dismissed that. Dismissed it, because that kind of thinking would connect him to the pain inside his heart, and he couldn’t afford to feel it.
‘He saved me,’ Jack whispered.
North said nothing. Jack’s eyes sought out Gwyn’s, who nodded at him seriously. Gwyn knew. Gwyn still looked shaken – paler than his usual paleness. Jack blinked as he remembered Gwyn being forced to his knees, forced to drop his sword; all thanks to the Nightmare King’s ability to evoke terror. At some point Gwyn had stood up, he’d picked up his sword. He looked in control. It must have happened while Jack had knelt on the floor, losing all sense of time.
He couldn’t bring himself to call the Nightmare King by any other name, anymore. He couldn’t. They were different. That hadn’t been Pitch.
Bunnymund cleared his throat.
‘I can’t believe you ever trusted him.’
Jack’s focus sharpened, narrowed. He stepped forwards and his whole leg throbbed pain at him and he didn’t care. He pushed it somewhere inside of him. He could deal with it later. Or not at all. The pain didn’t matter.
‘What did you say?’ he said. His voice lower, made dark by a lurking anger inside of him.
Bunnymund glared, and Jack was surprised at how quickly the responding rage inside of him grew. One moment he was made of numbness and the next...
‘He saved me,’ Jack said, louder.
‘Is that what you call it?’ Bunnymund said, voice hard. ‘Is that what that looked like to you? You’re bloody delusional. Because I just saw someone who had been biding his time until he could use us to get the shadows back.’
‘What is wrong with you?!’ Jack shouted in disbelief. ‘He just saved my life. He healed you! He didn’t have to do that! Seriously, are you trying to mess with me?’
‘You’ve been brainwashed,’ Bunnymund said, and Jack scoffed, anger swirling through him, cold as ice. Unlike the pain and the despair, he didn’t mind the anger. Anger was galvanising. It fortified him. It allowed him to focus. And if he focused on the anger, he didn’t have to think about the Nightmare King or how the shadows had felt inside of him or the fact that he couldn’t just ask Pitch to heal the wounds on his leg because Pitch wasn’t-
Jack growled and stepped forwards, crouching and readying his staff. Bunnymund withdrew his boomerang. That was when everyone else seemed to realise that it wasn’t the time or place.
‘We must leave,’ Gwyn said. ‘Augus’ dome is down, and humans will be coming.’ He started to sheathe his sword and then thought the better of it. The blade was still covered in blood. He stepped towards North and Jack instead, resolute.
‘We’ll meet at the Workshop?’ North suggested, and Gwyn nodded.
‘What if you’re wrong?’ Bunnymund rasped. ‘What if Jack has been brainwashed? What then? You think he should be back in that Workshop? How do we know he hasn’t been possessed by the shadows too?’
North made a sound of disbelief. Jack wanted to make the same noise, but tiredness was starting to creep over him. He’d made all those snowstorms, all the snowballs, distressed children had been crying; it had stripped him down, left him weary. More than that, though, his body told him that if he slept, he wouldn’t have to think anymore. He could disappear. Jack wanted that.
‘Aster,’ Gwyn said, ‘Jack isn’t possessed by shadows. And I, too, believe that Pitch saved Jack from possession. Are you doubting me?’
Bunnymund said nothing, but it was clear from his narrowed eyes and his aggressively pointed ears that he did.
‘Perhaps you had best come back with me,’ Gwyn said, turning back to Jack. ‘Augus Each Uisge has set his sights on you. Come back to the Seelie Court, where we can better protect you.’
‘Jack comes back with me,’ North said, fiercely, and Gwyn disagreed. Tense words floated over Jack’s head like tiny fluffy pieces of cumulus. He became aware of a tense jaw, of teeth wanting to chatter together, and he bit down on them until the tension resolved into a sharp ache. He pushed that down too. He focused only on the resolve inside him.
‘I’ll go with Gwyn,’ he said, finally making eye contact with North.
He looked away immediately. He was right. Looking at North made him want to cry. He couldn’t tolerate the heavy weight in his eyes, the sadness changing the wrinkles on his face. North looked at Jack as though he understood, as though he could see right past his resolve to the well of pain inside of him.
Jack thought he’d have more time to pull himself together. He thought that he’d get a chance to tell North that it would be okay. To ask North to make sure Sandy and Toothiana and Mora were okay. But Gwyn placed a hand on his shoulder and they dissolved into light.
Teleporting with Gwyn was nothing like teleporting with Pitch. It was easier. One second they were in the gymnasium and the next, they shimmered into existence in the middle of a forest cathedral. Giant trees grew up to the sky and wove their canopy so that only tiny shafts of light entered. The teleporting didn’t hurt; it felt warm.
There were hardly any fae around, and Jack was beyond noticing anything else as Gwyn led him over to a wooden chair by a wooden table.
There was an annoying, constant noise in his ears. He looked down at his fisted hand that protected the locket. His whole mouth hurt. His teeth were chattering. That was the noise. But Jack couldn’t stop now that he’d noticed. A moment later he started trembling violently.
It felt wrong to hold the locket.
What just happened?
It felt wrong to be anywhere without Pitch, without the promise of Pitch. It was wrong. Everything had gone wrong. Jack tried to force his muscles to lock together, to suppress the shaking, but it didn’t help. He couldn’t stop. He became aware of his breathing, audible and shallow and uneven. Hyperventilating. Every time he’d hyperventilated in the past few months, Pitch had been there. Jack gasped as something tight and clawed locked around his lungs.
‘You’re going into shock,’ Gwyn said to him, and then turned and motioned someone over. ‘Trow, get me a blanket and...’
Jack flinched when he felt calloused fingers briefly touch his forehead.
‘I suppose frost spirits don’t need blankets,’ Gwyn said. He turned back to the trow – a small, wizened creature with tailored clothing that looked as though it had been made of bark. ‘Just keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. I have to check on the others.’
The trow pulled a chair over, sat next to him, and didn’t say anything.
Jack was adrift. He was in a strange place, with strange people. The only anchor he had left was a tiny piece of burnt metal that cut into his palm, holding the likeness of a girl who had died a long, long time ago. He realised that he’d forgotten to ask about Pitch’s sword. The sword that the Nightmare King couldn’t hold anymore, because it repelled the shadows. Yet another piece of proof that this was his new reality now. This was the way it was going to be.
His teeth didn’t stop chattering for a long time.
It was another two hours before Gwyn found a cave that was large enough for him to make camp. By then, Jack thought it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that every step he took was more stagger than purpose.
Gwyn busied himself with making a fire. He drew out the magical pieces of coal from inside a small pack he kept strapped at his side. Jack could tell he was a warrior used to setting up camp for himself. Apparently the magical coal was okay, permitted, because it didn’t count as using one’s innate powers. Jack thought that was cheating, personally, but what did he know about magical mountains? This was his first.
Jack gingerly slipped the sword off his body, groaning behind closed lips at the pain. He then lay down, face first, in the snow by the cave entrance. He knew he should move the sword under cover; the snow probably wasn’t good for the leather. He knew he should – at least – make the effort of sitting with Gwyn for a little while and keeping him company.
Besides, he didn’t mind the fire. Sometimes he pretended it was Pitch’s body alongside his. It reminded him of hands that didn’t cool down as they touched him, of a mouth that warmed his mouth. Jack’s eyes slid over to the fire and he shivered.
He hated Gwyn’s obsession with making the fires every time they made camp. Maybe this whole stupid journey would be easier if he didn’t have the constant reminder of warmth. But he doubted it. Nothing had been easy. Nothing had been easy for nearly a month. He hardly recognised himself now. He wasn’t the same person anymore. He knew it. Gwyn knew it. They carefully avoided talking about it. At any rate, Gwyn seemed happy with Jack’s newfound determination, even if he didn’t like what had caused it.
The mountain was dangerous. His thoughts drifted a lot since they’d started climbing it, and he couldn’t decide if it was the enchantment of the mountain, or if it was just tiredness finding him and pulling all the things he wanted buried out into the open.
He couldn’t get the look on Pitch’s face as he’d been consumed by the shadows out of his head. He heard the words ‘save me’ over and over again, even though he’d never actually heard them in the gymnasium. They pierced him, splintered the shell of ice around his heart. He didn’t want to think about it but the mountain dragged it up. The only way Jack knew how to deal with what he was going through was the harden the shell around his heart. To bury himself in anger. Anger at the world, at the Each Uisge, at himself. Always, anger at himself.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t like to think about it.
Jack pressed his face into the snow, breathing in the cold. The first time he’d done it, Gwyn had been disturbed by the behaviour, trying to make him sit up. Jack had explained curtly that it helped him to recharge his energy. After that, Gwyn left him to lie on the snow and saturate his lungs with the freezing cold and didn’t bother him again.
He was so tired, but he didn’t want to sleep.
Sleep was dangerous.
Nightmares found him.
He didn’t like to think about those either.
20 Days Earlier:
He was given a bed to sleep in, a decadent construction woven together from living branches and covered in sheets that glowed silver. He eschewed it and slept up in the high branches of the forest cathedral itself. He slept for three days without a break. No nightmares found him.
When he roused, his leg and foot were healing nicely, his throat was almost better. He wondered if there was some magical property in the Seelie Court and the forest cathedral itself that allowed his wounds to knit neatly, that soothed the lacerations he’d made in his own throat. It wouldn’t surprise him. Even the tree he had slept upon felt surprisingly good-natured, as though it was radiating calm towards him.
With the fatigue gone, the numbness faded and left distress in its wake. It gave him energy to reflect on what had happened at the gymnasium. He didn’t want to, but his mind wouldn’t stop. And he had to think about it. If he didn’t face up to reality, he wouldn’t be as determined to get Pitch back. If he wasn’t as determined to get Pitch back, then who else would do it? Who else cared as much as he did?
These thoughts, along with many others, plagued him.
He spent most of his time at the Court eavesdropping heavily on the other fae. He moved from branch to branch, picking up bits of conversation. He heard snippets of information, put a story together in his head.
Gulvi and her fae had been successful in rescuing the children at the school she’d offered to defend, but the Glashtyn had escaped. An afrit said he believed that Gulvi had let him go on purpose, and the other fae that Jack listened to laughed in agreement and said it was understandable, given how charming and pretty he was.
Sandy had taken on the Dullahan with a band of other Seelie fae, and successfully liberated the school; though there had been an extremely high number of fae casualties. The Dullahan was bloodthirsty. But he cared less about harming children than he did about harming the fae themselves. In the end, the Dullahan had also escaped.
Jenny Greenteeth had been defeated, her powers removed as punishment. She was no longer a member of Augus’ Unseelie Court. Jack felt unexpectedly sad, at that. He remembered overhearing her with the Nain Rouge, how desperate she’d been to get her watery home back. He thought that Jenny Greenteeth had gotten caught up in something too big for her to handle. He could relate. She was the only one he felt sorry for.
Everyone couldn’t stop talking about the Nightmare King. The fae talked about him with awe. They talked about how he’d defeated the Nain Rouge. Jack had even heard a man with a bull’s head say that he didn’t think it was possible for someone to defeat the Nain Rouge. That she’d just gotten too powerful. ‘Even Augus could hardly control her.’ They talked about the Nightmare King like he’d done everyone a favour. Jack was upset to hear the Nain Rouge was still alive.
If Jack let himself think about it too much, he realised he was angry at the fae. That he maybe even hated them. Not all of them, perhaps. Gwyn wasn’t so bad. His soldiers were okay. He liked Ondine, even if her predictions were useless. He even liked Albion, if only because he intervened that one time and stopped everyone else from lecturing Jack. But the rest of them, gossiping and petty, showing their callous disregard for human life even when they were meant to be the good guys, that was hard to take. They were nice enough to him, but it was clear he was an outsider.
On the fourth day, he learned that the Nightmare King and Augus were laying low; though Augus was still forcing water wights and humans away from fresh water sources. The sales of rainwater tanks had increased. People were buying bottled water in bulk. In some places in the United Kingdom and Europe, fresh water was so hard to come by that a state of crisis had been declared. He also heard that the Nightmare King and Augus had been seen together. Together.
It didn’t bother Jack as much as he thought it would. It wasn’t as though Pitch had changed his loyalties, after all, and Jack hadn’t fallen in love with a group of malicious shadows. But still, it scraped at him.
On the fifth day, Gulvi entered the Seelie Court, armed and alone, like she belonged there.
Anger swelled and burst through him, it made his body temperature drop.
He flew down and held his staff out at her, ignoring the frightened and indignant cries from other fae around him. Gulvi raised her hands in mock surrender. Her heavy, white wings flared.
‘It’s against fae law to attack each other within a Court,’ she purred. ‘We put our arms down, here, little one.’
‘I’m not fae,’ Jack hissed. ‘I don’t play by your rules.’
Gulvi shrugged, smirked. Her casual disregard for Jack and his staff made him want to shake her, to blast her backwards with frost lightning.
‘Did you know?’ he said. ‘Did you know that Augus wanted to possess one of us with the shadows? Was that the card you were holding back?’
Gulvi’s eyes flickered, a rare show of uncertainty. Jack tensed. He knew it, he had known it as soon as the Nain Rouge had sent the shadows at him. It was too coordinated, too purposeful. He had played the scenes at the gymnasium in his head over and over again. He kept seeing the way Augus had said something to the Nain Rouge that he wasn’t able to catch, the slow nod of encouragement he’d given her when Jack asked for his powers back. And somewhere, in amongst all of his guilt that he’d asked for that, he knew that Augus had been thinking ahead to recruitment. After all, Jack was so vulnerable to the compulsions. It made him shudder every time he thought about it; but Augus had wanted someone who could control the weather, someone who easily manipulated, someone possessed with shadows and ready to be made into a puppet.
Gulvi knew it too. And she hadn’t told anyone. She’d even taunted him about the knowledge she’d been holding back before the battle.
‘You did know!’ Jack shouted, and Gulvi withdrew both of her curved knives in a blur of movement, dodging a burst of jagged frost lightning, eyes narrowing. Jack heard fae fleeing, he didn’t care. He wasn’t fae. It wouldn’t matter if he was kicked out. He didn’t want to stay here anyway. He had to figure out how to get Pitch back, and he was only wasting his time in this place.
If he stayed focused on his goal, he was almost able to paper over the despair that yawned huge inside of him.
He shot frost lightning at her again, and then flew out of her way when she lunged at him with her knives.
‘La, frostling, it was supposed to be you,’ Gulvi said, grinning as she side-stepped another bolt of the frost.
‘You think I don’t know that?’ Jack said. ‘Why didn’t you tell us? You’re a monster.’
‘I’m a swan,’ Gulvi said, charging forwards, splaying her wings wide and scowling when Jack dodged and ducked past her. He turned and held his staff in front of himself defensively. ‘And what good would it have done you, hm? You still would have needed to go to make that pretty, pretty snow. Would you have stayed back, privileging yourself over all of those pesky children, as you should have done? The outcome would have been almost the same. We’d still have a Nightmare King, and,’ she laughed sweetly, ‘a lot more dead children.’
Jack thrust his staff forward and summoned frost lightning from his core. His skin felt blistered with anger, it felt like frostbite and ice burns shooting up and down his body. He was ready to discharge when Gwyn suddenly appeared between the two of them, hands out, a shocked look on his face. Jack pulled his staff back quickly, and the building tension inside of him displaced throughout his whole body like an aftershock.
‘What is it with you two?!’ Gwyn shouted. ‘Jack, we lay our arms down in the Seelie Court. Fae or not, that’s the law. Gulvi, I could banish you for allowing yourself to be provoked like this!’
‘Here he is,’ Gulvi spat at Jack, ‘your Seelie King, apparently ready to protect you from the big, scary, swan-maiden that I am.’
‘I’m not here to protect him,’ Gwyn said, glaring at Gulvi. ‘I’m looking out for you. You remember what he was like during the Wild Hunt. Leave him alone.’
Gulvi lowered her daggers, and Jack lowered his staff slowly, wondering where she lived or nested. He wondered if it was a place he could freeze over, call blizzards to. He could get the winds to pick up her scent, he could track her down, he could freeze her wings in mid-flight if he wanted to, he could-
He tore his eyes away from her and forced himself to focus on Gwyn.
‘Did you know?’ Jack said, voice trembling, wishing he could just rip the truth from the Seelie King’s mind. ‘Did you know that Augus was planning on possessing one of us?’
‘You. He wanted it to be you.’ Gulvi hissed, and Jack’s hand clenched so hard on his staff that his hand cramped.
‘No, I didn’t know,’ Gwyn said, looking over at Gulvi. Jack wanted him to get angry, wanted him to banish her as he’d said he could. But Gwyn simply looked at her measuringly and then sighed. ‘But I’m not surprised. Leave Gulvi alone. She is what she is, Jack. Would it have changed anything, if you had known?’
Jack stared at Gulvi, instead of Gwyn. He tried to piece it all together in his mind. Would he have stayed back at the Workshop, while children were in danger? No. Pitch would have tried to make him stay behind, and he still wouldn’t have listened. And it wasn’t as though he could have made Pitch stay behind. And it wasn’t as though they would have forgiven themselves for staying in the Workshop while everyone else fought so hard around them. They were both necessary to make the snow that could fight back against the shadows. If Gulvi had told him that Augus wanted to possess him with the shadows, it may have made him more wary. Would Pitch have still been possessed? Was Pitch the back-up plan?
Jack blinked hard. They had been lambs for the slaughter. There was nothing he could have done differently. He wouldn’t have left children to die in a school. He would have still gone, he would have been more frightened, he may have even been less useful.
He remembered Pitch as he leaned against the door, voice tainted with fear. We’re not ready. We’ll never be ready.
‘There, see? You realise,’ Gulvi said, voice uncharacteristically brittle. ‘What would you have done? How hopeless would you have felt, knowing that was waiting for you? Schools are saved, humans will live; the Nain Rouge and Jenny Greenteeth are no longer thorns in our side. I-’
‘Don’t sell it to me like you were doing me a favour. You’re nothing more than a-’
‘Watch it,’ Gwyn said, and Jack bristled, stepped back from the both of them. ‘If anyone is going to deal with Gulvi, it is going to be me. That is how it works here, Jack. You’re in my Court and you live by my laws. Gulvi, I want you to come with me. It’s past time we had a chat.’
Gulvi looked over her shoulder twice as she followed Gwyn. The first time, she looked smug. The second time, there was something of sympathy in her dark, liquid eyes.
17 Days Earlier:
Night never settled properly over the forest cathedral. The sky only ever deepened to a violet-grey twilight. Stars blinked overhead, but it wasn’t the same as the night that lay itself over the earth that Jack was familiar with.
One evening, Jack wandered aimlessly. He was hollowed out. Would he always be hollowed out? He didn’t even know, anymore, what equilibrium was supposed to feel like.
Of all the things that had been bothering him, the idea of dying no longer seemed the worst. He worried – most of all – that he would not be able to save Pitch before the rest of his soul leaked away. He had nightmares of being so close, so close, and falling asleep never to wake up again, while Pitch called out his name. Every time he felt close to breaking down – which was far too often – he would find that spider’s thread of resolve and strengthen it, he would sink himself into determination. He made Pitch his priority. He looked after himself because he knew he needed to be as well as possible to get him back.
He wandered through the Seelie Court, trying to think of what he would do next. Planning was not his forte, but he needed to attempt to think ahead.
Hours passed as he meandered under the watchful twilight. Eventually he ended up in a section of the forest maze where the trees broadened and the spaces between them narrowed together. He navigated them absently, and ended up at an entrance barred with loosely hanging vines covered in sweet-scented red blossoms. He ducked under the vines and entered a room of moss, of shed antlers strewn in piles over the soft forest floor, of low stools covered in lichen. He sat down on one and looked up to see how much of the twilight pressed through. But he saw no twilight at all, the branches were too thickly intertwined. Small, floating lights lending a yellowed glow to the room. A white owl looked down at him.
The Seelie Court was a strange place. It was not in the human world. He knew that much. Like North’s Workshop or Toothiana’s palace or Bunnymund’s underground wonderland, it existed in some liminal, in-between space.
Gwyn walked through an adjoining entrance, wearing simple olive green breeches and a half-unlaced shirt, and stopped dead when he saw Jack. His eyes widened, he looked around, checking to see if anyone else was in the room with them.
‘What are you doing here? How did you get here?’
Jack rubbed a hand over his forehead.
‘I was just...I don’t know. I was just walking around. And then I got here. Why?’
‘These are my private rooms,’ Gwyn said, forehead creasing. ‘It’s not easy for people to find their way here. There are enchantments specifically so that they don’t.’
‘Sorry,’ Jack said, standing up. ‘I’ll go. I didn’t know this-’
‘No, wait. If you’re here, there’s a reason for it. Talk to me.’
Jack swallowed. He wasn’t sure how to read Gwyn. Seeing him bloody and dirty on the battlefield, seeing him feral and fey during the Wild Hunt, seeing him uphold fae justice in a cold, aloof manner...it didn’t help him understand Gwyn at all. And now he was supposed to accept that this strange, mossy cavern with its lichen stools and shed antlers were part of Gwyn’s private rooms? What did he do with all the shed antlers, anyway?
‘Talk to me,’ Gwyn repeated again, his voice quieter now.
‘What now?’ Jack said. ‘What do we do now? We have to do something, right?’
‘Jack, it’s only been a little over a week, you-’
Only a week. It felt like years had passed. But then, sometimes it felt like only minutes ago that he had fallen asleep in Pitch’s arms. Time not only meant nothing to him, it didn’t even make sense anymore.
‘We have to save him,’ Jack insisted.
‘Jack, look, I liked the man, but-’
‘And you have to help me,’ Jack said, too desperate to be aware of his audacity. ‘You have to help me, because you used us. And you owe us. You can’t tell me he wasn’t one of your most valuable weapons. You must want him back too. You know it’s important. I saw how quickly the Nightmare King put you on your knees. We have to find a way to turn him back into Pitch. If we can do that, it’ll be easier the second time around. Jenny Greenteeth is demoted. The Nain Rouge is no longer a member of the Court. You-’
‘Stop,’ Gwyn said, holding up a hand imperially. And then he looked at it in affront, and dropped it to his side again. It was moments like that, where Jack wondered if Gwyn even liked who he was. He sometimes seemed horrified by the fact that he was the Seelie King.
‘Stop,’ Gwyn said. ‘Listen. I did use you. Both of you. He is a valuable weapon. Just as he is an incredible enemy. But I’m running out of ideas; I used most of them at the schools and Augus knows that. And you need rest, Jack. You look like hell.’
‘How much rest is enough rest? I could end up resting until I’m dead, okay? Screw rest. If you don’t want to help me, just tell me. I’m doing this with or without you.’
Gwyn closed his eyes, his lips thinned. It was a gesture that reminded him suddenly, awfully, of Pitch. Long-suffering Pitch, every time Jack said something that pained him. Jack turned, fist pressing hard to his chest.
It doesn’t hurt, because you’re going to get him back, and that’s all that matters.
When he turned back, Gwyn watched him.
‘You don’t like me much, do you?’ he said, and Jack felt a flash of irritation. And then he couldn’t help but smile, though it was darker than the ones he used to offer.
‘Not heaps. But hey, I’m not one to throw any tool out of my toolbox.’
At that, Gwyn tilted his head back and laughed. It was a full-bodied sound, filled with that awful charm that skated up Jack’s skin and left him feeling exposed. When Gwyn was done, he looked back and there was something of that feral, game spark in his eyes.
‘Well said, Jack. Well said. Let’s chat then, shall we?’
Jack struck at whatever pushed him. He was tired. He needed sleep. The pushing returned, harder this time, so that Jack rocked back and forth in the snow where he lay. Mounds of it fell off him, and he mumbled something and lashed out again. This time he made heavy contact. Something withdrew. Jack thought he was done. He hoped he’d be left alone. He just wanted to sleep.
The hands returned, and then one cuffed him hard across the back of the head. Pain exploded at the back of his skull.
‘What the hell?’ Jack shouted, awake, pushing himself upright and groaning as his stiff, bruised shoulders creaked in discomfort. ‘Oh, that stupid sword.’
‘You’re getting harder and harder to rouse,’ Gwyn said, as Jack rubbed at the back of his head. Gwyn hit hard. ‘Come. This was your idea. We don’t have much time left to reach the summit.’
He held out Pitch’s sword to Jack. The leather strap and heavy sheath and sword made Jack’s shoulders hurt pre-emptively. Jack wished – fervently – that Gwyn could just shoulder it for him. Just for a little while.
But no, that wasn’t the invisible contract he’d made with these mountain wights, as soon as he’d stepped foot on the path leading up to their home.
Almost as though he’d read his mind, Gwyn thrust the sword at Jack again. Jack took it, arms trembling under its weight. He pulled it towards himself and rested the hilt against his chest, dreading the moment when he would put it on again. He hadn’t dared look under his sweatshirt. He was starting to think the strap had cut through the skin anyway.
‘You can sleep as long as you want once we’re off this forsaken mountain. But you know the laws. You carry the weapon you want seen to. No powers voluntarily used. We must reach the summit in three days. We do not have much of those three days left, and I have let you sleep too long already.’
‘If you hit me again, I will-’
‘Must I remind you why we’re doing this?’ Gwyn snapped back. ‘I do not have to be here with you. I have many other things I could be doing with my time!’
Jack stared at him in shock, and then wrapped his arms around the sword leaning against him. If he pretended, it was almost like Pitch was...
No, you can’t do this. You don’t have time for this.
Jack made a thin sound that was whipped away by the blizzard. Gwyn was right. Gwyn was almost always right. Jack felt like nothing more than a child around him. He was the one who had asked for this. Gwyn didn’t have to be here with him. He’d only offered because he wanted to make sure Jack would be as safe as possible. If he hadn’t been there, Jack would have used his powers by now, he would have fallen off the side of the mountain, he would had slept past the three day deadline to reach the summit.
He needed Gwyn.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said, voice small.
‘No,’ Gwyn said, stepping forward and picking up the sword. He stepped even closer and slid the strap carefully onto Jack’s body. Jack’s throat closed on a cry as it settled over one shoulder and underneath the other arm. He didn’t think he could face more climbing, more of the infernal rubbing against his back and shoulders and chest. ‘I apologise for being coarse.’
Jack looked up at him, and Gwyn returned the gaze.
‘You’ve changed,’ Gwyn said, softly. Jack opened his mouth to apologise again, and Gwyn shook his head. ‘You’ve had to.’
He turned around and started walking up the mountain path again without looking back.
Jack took a deep breath, steeled himself against his fatigue, against the horrible thoughts in his head, the soreness in his body, and followed.
12 Days Earlier:
Reports that the Nightmare King was sending forth nightmares out to those who were on the ‘wrong side’ came flooding in. Gwyn and Jack were unaffected, protected by the many wards around the Seelie Court. But knowing that the Nightmare King was out there, back to his old tricks, made his skin crawl. There were many things that he didn’t want to experience, and nightmares directly seeded by the Nightmare King were one of them. His own nightmares were bad enough.
Jack hadn’t realised that one of the reasons that Gwyn had left him immediately after the battle in the gymnasium, was to retrieve Pitch’s sword. The leather strap, the sheath and the sword were still covered in flecks of blood, and after cleaning it with some chamois he borrowed from Gwyn, Jack traced his fingers gently over the faint language mapped into that strange, pale steel. Pitch’s fingers had moved lovingly over the same sword. They had polished the blade, cleaned it, kept the sheath in good condition, checked over the leather. Pitch had treated it like a cousin to the locket. Invaluable, important.
Jack pulled the sword out of the sheath. It was heavy, and when he tried to lift it with both hands, he staggered backwards at its weight. It was really heavy. He wondered at Pitch’s strength, at his ability to move lightly, like a dancer, with a weapon that made Jack feel like he was lifting one half of a twelve-seater table made of lead.
He slid the sword back in its sheath and then awkwardly attempted to pull it over his shoulder and under his other arm, the way Pitch had always done it. It didn’t fit well at all. Jack felt like he’d just tugged a boulder onto his back.
Gwyn walked in to his rooms, brushing yellow flower petals out of his hair and off his shoulders. He laughed out loud when he saw Jack.
‘That does not suit you,’ Gwyn said, and Jack gritted his teeth and forced himself to stand upright, only to find his centre of gravity so thrown off, that he pitched into the wall. He half-expected Gwyn to help, but Gwyn seemed to find it more important to keep laughing.
‘It’s so great that I amuse you,’ Jack mumbled as he slipped out of the leather strap and rolled his shoulders, awkwardly.
Jack looked at the sword, the strap, wondered if he could ask what had been playing on his mind. He’d had a stupid idea a few days ago and now it wouldn’t leave him alone. Gwyn had told him to brainstorm, but he probably hadn’t meant this.
‘Do you know anyone who could break this down and remake it into something different?’ Jack said, and Gwyn stopped laughing, face turning cold and serious faster than Jack thought a face could.
‘That’s a very special sword. Do you know what you’re asking?’
‘If you’re asking me whether it’s more important to keep a stupid sword and have the Nightmare King...or whether it’s more important to break it down and maybe get an advantage in getting Pitch back, then I think you know my answer,’ Jack said, stubbornly.
Gwyn sat down on one of the lichen stools heavily, staring at the sword.
‘There has never been a weapon like it on this planet. And there likely never will be again. And you want to...’
‘Break it down. Into new things. The metal repels the shadows. I think it’s more important that we can use it. I mean, you already have a sword that carries the golden light. I want to be able to use it. Isn’t that your theory? Making the most out of what you’ve got available?’
‘Seriously, you’re finding this difficult?’ Jack said, surprised. ‘The one who seems to have no problem ordering us all around in a battlefield doesn’t want to hurt a freaking sword? It’s not alive, you know.’
Gwyn looked like he wanted to argue the point, but he subsided, looking down at his hands.
‘Pitch may not forgive this,’ Gwyn said warily.
‘If this gets Pitch back, I don’t care,’ Jack said, and it almost sounded convincing. He did care. His hand clenched around the leather strap automatically, because he hated the ideas he came up with sometimes. He hated this idea.
‘I do know of some dwarves who specialise in rare metals. In fact they made my sword. But you’re not going to like them much. There are rules about what they’ll work with, and why. And it’s a hard journey to get there. One I’m not sure you’re capable of. You’re very weak. And even if you get there, they might still turn you away. I once went to get a second sword made, and they told me to leave in no uncertain terms. They’re...brusque.’
‘Which means something, if you’re saying it,’ Jack said.
He expected Gwyn to come back with something wry or witty, but he didn’t. That was more Pitch’s domain. Having Gwyn around was never easy. He was often busy, he was abrupt and demanding. But every now and then he’d do something which reminded him of Pitch, and it made him want to run halfway across the world and hide. It made him want to stay by Gwyn’s side, at least until Pitch was back. He hoped Gwyn would never realise that Jack sometimes thought of him as a weak, substitute Pitch.
‘Jack,’ Gwyn said, his tone serious. ‘Have you thought about what you will do if we can’t get him back?’
Jack’s mouth went dry. He shivered.
‘No, it’s not an option.’
‘What if we destroy the shadows, and there’s nothing of him left? Don’t misunderstand me. I have immense respect for the warrior I came to know as we trained together. If anyone is capable of withstanding that onslaught of internal darkness, it will be him. But what if he can’t this time? What if-’
Gwyn broke off when he saw the look on Jack’s face. He stood abruptly and cleared his throat.
‘It doesn’t do to dwell on these things,’ Gwyn said, and Jack stared at him, numb, hurt.
The closer they got to the summit, the more despair threatened to choke him. It was a wild blizzard outside, a relentless battle inside of himself too.
Even if he could get the sword broken down and changed the way he wanted, who was to say it would even work? It was only a small step in a larger plan that didn’t exist yet. Even if the dwarves didn’t turn him away, even if they accepted him, why was he doing this? Why was Gwyn coming with him on such a harebrained scheme? Was everyone really so desperate? Was their situation really so dire?
Jack had fallen down many times that day, and his knees and palms were bruised. The leather strap had worn his skin so raw that it looked like he had carpet burn anywhere the strap had touched him. He had a bruise angled down his back that was livid and – according to Gwyn – growing blacker. Jack wasn’t sure when Gwyn had seen it, and suspected that Gwyn had been checking on him while he slept.
He was starting think that maybe Gwyn was just awkward. And once he realised that, he couldn’t stop seeing signs of it. Beneath the fae charm, beneath his ability to command an army, he was surprisingly bad at interpersonal interactions. He hadn’t wanted to be the King of the Seelie fae, the leader of their Court, and Jack was starting to think it was because his idea of a good day was spending it alone in a forest; probably hunting something. He didn’t like small talk, he thought sparring was a good way of bonding with someone, he didn’t know how to show empathy and yet – if him checking on Jack’s wounds was anything to go by – he clearly cared. He had taken time away from the Seelie Court to come with Jack on this journey, knowing that he also couldn’t leave the mountain once he’d set foot upon it.
Gwyn was...generous, Jack realised.
Generous and awkward and stoic and a warrior. Like that didn’t remind him of anyone he knew.
Jack squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself onwards. He didn’t want to fall again. He was so tired of gravity playing tricks on him. He was going to spend weeks in the air once he was off the mountain. Weeks.
Hours passed and Jack felt like he was in a trance. He wanted to stop walking, he definitely wanted to stop falling down, but he kept doing both. He had forced himself up so many times that he was starting to feel like it was the way he normally walked around.
Jack wasn’t looking, fell backwards when he walked into Gwyn, who had halted. Gwyn spun to catch him, but he was too late, and Jack landed heavily, awkwardly on his back. Pain shot through his body, splintered into his spine, and he choked down a scream. A moment later he felt a thick, oozing wetness trickling down his skin, soaking into his sweatshirt.
Even through the fabric of his hoodie, the sword, the scabbard, the leather strap – they had all finally cut through his skin.
He let Gwyn pull him into a sitting position, let Gwyn shift the strap and the sword to try and make it more comfortable. It made hardly any difference. There was no part of him that didn’t hurt. He was trembling again. He was getting tired of these hardened warrior types seeing him at his worst. He forced himself to his knees and then staggered upright again, his back still bleeding.
He didn’t have anything to say. Once he might have made some sort of wry joke about it, but words deserted him. He just wanted to get it done.
‘We’re here,’ Gwyn said, and Jack blinked. ‘The entrance is just over there.’
Gwyn pointed, and through the incessant blizzard, Jack saw a small, orange glow of light.
‘What now?’ Jack said, and then blinked his eyes clear as a shadowy figure approached them. She became clearer and clearer through the snowfall. She wore the same, pale gleaming armour that Gwyn did. She had a huge, double-bladed axe strapped to her back, and her hair was short and spiky. She was like no other dwarf Jack had ever met. She was taller than he was, solidly built, with shoulders that bulged and hands blackened with soot.
When she saw Gwyn, she smiled and pushed him hard on the shoulder in some kind of antagonistic greeting. Gwyn pushed back and her eyes lit up. Jack hoped he wasn’t going to have to deal with the same thing, because he was pretty sure he’d be flung backwards and land on his back again. The woman took one look at him, one look at the hilt of the sword over his shoulder, and frowned.
‘I’m Iskala, one of the Glasera dwarves. And that is not your sword.’
‘Nope,’ Jack managed, and Iskala nodded.
‘So you made it to the top of our mountain with that on your back?’
She was waiting for a response, even though it was obvious that was just what he’d done. If, at any point, he’d let Gwyn carry it, they would never have been allowed to reach the summit in the first place.
‘Yep,’ he said.
‘Then we had best get you to the Head Smith, so you can tell us what you want.’
She turned and Gwyn followed. Jack took a deep breath, ignored how blood felt frozen to his skin, and forced himself onward.
5 Days Earlier:
The Workshop was just as Jack remembered it. It was noisy and bright, colourful and filled with industrious yeti, elves that got underfoot, an abundance of Christmas cookies, toy prototypes and magical, wondrous things.
Jack missed the days when he felt awe upon seeing it. He knew how much he’d changed since the battle at the school, when he looked around and thought nothing except that it was very loud, and not very helpful.
He went first to Sandy. He had missed all of the Guardians, but he’d thought of Sandy and his loving silences the most. Sandy wasn’t like the fae, and he wasn’t like any of the other Guardians. He was quintessentially himself. Even looking at him or thinking about him reminded Jack of good dreams, and those were in poor supply.
However, when he reached the top of the tower where Sandy slept; Sandy wasn’t there. Jack breathed through his disappointment, taking in the empty golden cloud. He smiled weakly when he saw the thick, spiral of black above it.
‘Mora,’ he said, and the spiral slowed and then sped up again in response. There was a lot more sand now. It wouldn’t be long, he realised, before he would hopefully see her again. He didn’t allow himself to think about her too much, in case it didn’t work, in case Sandy couldn’t make it happen. But seeing the spiralling black sand, he could feel her, even from here. It was her personality. She called to him.
He walked over and placed his hands up to the sand like someone might warm their hands before a fire.
‘Not long now,’ he said, and the sand brushed his palms.
‘I have to go away, for a little while. But I’ll be back for you as soon as I can.’
The black sand swept around his fingers, curled around his wrists. He almost thought he could feel her forehead against his chest. Even now, she was strong enough to inspire a small amount of fear, a hiccup of it burst inside of him like a soap bubble, and he almost laughed to feel it again. It was Mora.
He stayed with her for a few more minutes, before pulling away. He wished he could have seen Sandy.
North met him outside the tower, having been informed by the yeti that he was there. He opened his arms for a hug, but Jack stepped back warily, knowing the power that touch had to break him apart. Gwyn had warned him that it was wise to keep himself as together as possible before scaling the mountain.
North dropped his arms and sighed. Jack saw bags under his eyes. He looked exhausted.
‘You look tired,’ he said. ‘Is it because of the Nightmare King?’
‘Mm, yes. Nothing I am not handling.’
The warm smile that North offered was genuine, and Jack returned it, even as he knew his smile was a shadow of its former self.
‘I’m going to be gone for a few days. I’m.- Well it might not work, but I’m going to be trying something.’
‘Do you need company?’ North said, and Jack shook his head.
‘Gwyn is coming with me. So it’ll be fine. I just wanted to let you guys know, in case you looked for me and couldn’t...’
North nodded. Jack felt a distance between them he knew he’d created. In not accepting North’s hugs, in disappearing after the battle in the gymnasium, even now in the way he talked to him. He just couldn’t afford to soften, he couldn’t offer even that much that much of himself. Already, the idea of acting the way he used to even a month ago was abhorrent. That was not a Jack who could defeat this incarnation of the Nightmare King, and if Jack wanted Pitch back, he’d have to become someone who could.
‘I never thought I’d say this,’ North said, ‘but I miss Pitch. The Nightmare King as he is now reminds me of...darker times. It must have been hard for Pitch to let himself become that, so that you wouldn’t have to.’
Jack thought he would hurt upon hearing that, he thought he’d have to pull himself together, force himself to be strong. But he was already so cold inside that he felt almost nothing at all. Whatever ice he commanded had crept inside him and frozen him from the inside out.
‘Bunnymund is here, you should say farewell to him too,’ North said, and Jack felt his lips compress, he bit his tongue.
‘Maybe,’ Jack said, finally.
‘It would have been good for him to have seen some of the things I saw. For him to have seen the way Pitch cared for you,’ North said. ‘We have been talking to him, even Tooth. I think he is dealing with some wounds from a long time ago, Jack, and you have been caught in the fiery cross.’
Jack squinted at that. The fiery...what?
‘Oh! You mean the crossfire?’
‘Right. Yeah. Well, maybe. It’s complicated. Pitch thinks I should talk to him too, I mean, that was before everything, but, he thought I should...’
Jack stumbled to a halt. A hairline crack appeared in the ice he enveloped his feelings in. North stepped forwards to place a hand on his arm – one of those huge, gentle hands – and Jack stumbled backwards.
‘Yeah,’ Jack heard himself say, ‘I’ll go find Bunny. And I’ll check in once I’m back. I can’t stay at the Seelie Court forever, they’re weird over there.’
He couldn’t tell the expression on North’s face. Pity? Horror? He couldn’t afford to let himself get caught up in the threat of heart to heart conversation. Maybe once Pitch was back, he’d consider it, but now was not the time. He schooled his face to what he hoped was a calm expression.
‘We just want to help, Jack,’ North said, and Jack nodded.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said.
‘Ah, no, Jack. Again, it is not you who is needing to be sorry this time,’ North said. He offered it on a rueful, sad smile, one that forced his eyes shut, tightened his lips more than a smile should.
Jack couldn’t stand it any longer. He floated away, dodging a couple of yeti as he went. The wind picked up the scent of Bunnymund for him, and he followed it into the round-table room, where Bunnymund was poring over an ancient map that showed continents and countries he’d never seen before. The fur on Bunnymund’s injured leg was growing in slowly.
Jack didn’t want to be angry about it, but he was. Because Pitch had decided to heal Bunnymund, they’d never even had a chance of making the golden storm clouds inside the gymnasium. And maybe it wouldn’t have helped. Jack told himself not to be angry about it.
Bunnymund looked up from his map and didn’t seem surprised to see Jack there. His eyes narrowed, his arms tensed, and that was it.
‘Your boyfriend has a deft touch with nightmares,’ Bunnymund said, breaking the silence.
‘He’s not my boyfriend, because he’s not Pitch.’
‘This again,’ Bunnymund said, and Jack floated over and perched in the middle of the round table, forcing Bunnymund to look up at him.
‘North said all the Guardians had been talking to you, but I see it hasn’t really helped. It’s funny though, you know. You throwing stones while reaping the benefits of him healing you, right? I don’t get you at all.’
Bunnymund scowled, didn’t say anything.
‘Is it so hard to separate the Nightmare King from the Pitch he became? Because I find it pretty easy.’
‘I was right though,’ Bunnymund said, changing tack. ‘You got hurt.’
Jack laughed, standing on the table and pacing it.
‘Why do you care so much, when you didn’t care about hurting me before I became a Guardian? Why do you get to pick and choose what matters to you? I don’t get you at all. And I don’t really want to. I came to tell you that I was going away for a few days, because North said I should, but honestly, I’m starting to think that you and I just aren’t supposed o be friends.’
Jack hopped off the table and stilled when he felt a paw on his upper arm. He turned and Bunnymund withdrew it straight away, a surprised look on his face. His whiskers drooped, his eyes were wide.
‘What do you mean? Have you gone around the twist? When did I hurt you before you became a Guardian?’
Jack couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
‘Don’t play dumb, rabbit. I’m not in the mood.’
‘Just tell me. What do you mean?’ Bunnymund’s ears perked in realisation, he tilted his head back. ‘Is this about- Crikey, is this about the first time we met? Toughen up, you wally. After all this time, you’re sore at me because of that?’
‘You ever wonder why I messed with Easter, but I didn’t really bother messing with Christmas, or any of the other major holidays?’ Jack said, tasting bitterness in his mouth. ‘I tried to be your friend, I thought ‘Hey, you know, he’s a giant rabbit who paints eggs for children and loves chocolate, he seems like the kind of...‘
Jack took a deep breath. Another. He didn’t feel like finishing that sentence. He seems like the kind of spirit who might be able to put up with me for a little while.
‘So I was short with you a few times,’ Bunnymund said, confused, ‘I don’t understand. Why are you being so precious about it?’
‘Do you know how many friends I had, before I met you?’ Jack said, wanting to scratch the pain out of himself. Maybe if he finally just told Bunnymund, he wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. He already had enough things to worry about.
‘I don’t bloody know, do I? Hundreds? With all your larrikin ways it wouldn’t surprise me. Even without the children. Some spirits love snow days, after all.’
‘I had none, Bunny,’ Jack said, quietly. ‘And it turns out I didn’t have one after I met you, either.’
Bunnymund stared at him in disbelief.
‘I mean I clearly misread you from the start,’ Jack said, avoiding eye-contact and looking out of the door he’d entered through. ‘I thought you’d be...fun. Not grumpy and short-tempered and you know, sometimes a little violent. And when you saw that none of the children believed in me, that time, you told me that I deserved that, because I didn’t take my responsibilities seriously enough. And when I asked you ‘What responsibilities?’ because you know, maybe I wanted to learn something about myself? Do you remember what you said?’
The giant rabbit took a step backwards and looked over at the map, but he was looking through it, seeing a different time, a different place.
‘You didn’t act like someone who wanted to be friends,’ Bunnymund said, but he sounded uncertain.
‘I didn’t know what I was doing,’ Jack laughed again, the sound harsh even to his own ears. ‘I still don’t know what I’m doing. But you know what I do know? I know that Pitch and the Nightmare King aren’t the same. I know that Pitch did save me. I’m sorry everyone is now suffering the consequences for that. I really am. And you should know that I take my responsibilities pretty seriously, these days, actually. And that I’m working really hard to make sure that this is temporary. And maybe you’ll never believe in Pitch, or...or me, and North says you’re dealing with a lot of...’
Jack couldn’t finish. He wanted to say it was okay, that he didn’t mind, that he understood. He told himself that he wasn’t angry. That Bunnymund hadn’t taken up precious moments of Pitch’s time. In a last ditch effort to make his mind shut up, he told himself that Pitch hadn’t wasted his golden light on Bunnymund’s leg. He hadn’t. He told himself that Bunnymund wasn’t the reason that Pitch’s light had guttered and died when it did.
A gasp ripped out of his throat, and he closed his mouth around it too late.
‘What is it?’ Bunnymund said, confused, eyes wide, paws out like he wanted to offer something but didn’t know how.
‘I have to go,’ Jack said. He imagined ice hardening around his heart, imagined it tempered and not brittle, the kind of ice that didn’t melt in sunlight, the kind of ice that wouldn’t crack under pressure. Coming back to the Workshop before his journey with Gwyn had been a mistake.
He backed away from Bunnymund, then turned and escaped the toy factory. It was harder to wipe the concerned, dazed expression on Bunnymund’s face from his mind than he thought it would be.
The Glasera dwarf, Iskala, led Gwyn and Jack into the summit of the mountain itself. It was hot and stifling as furnaces that stretched deep down into the bowels of the earth generated the heat necessary to work with and temper the most magical of metals. The Glasera themselves were an unfriendly lot, staring with open mistrust at Gwyn and Jack. He felt their glares on his back after he’d passed them, resisted the urge to look back.
Even Gwyn was treated like he wasn’t welcome, which he didn’t seem to mind. Gwyn had warned Jack multiple times that the Glasera were a proud people who did not welcome strangers easily.
Iskala brought them to a table made of pale blue metal, and in front of it stood a huge blacksmith, tools hanging from a broad belt, a hard look etched into the lines on his face.
‘Show me the sword,’ he said, and Jack looked over at Gwyn, who nodded.
Jack reached up to pull the strap off and hunched over from the pain that rippled through him. He ground his teeth together, told himself that the quicker he did it, the quicker it would be over and done with. He could already feel fresh blood oozing down his back.
He stared at the floor and grabbed the leather strap, swinging the sword up and over his shoulders. It took all of his energy to lift it, and all of his strength not to cry out as he slammed the whole thing down on the table. The scabbard clashed with the metal and it created a huge, booming clang that reverberated around them. Jack’s ears were still ringing when he looked up.
‘Now,’ the blacksmith said, looking at the sword and strap, and then looking back up at Jack. ‘Tell me what you want done with it, and I’ll tell you what your chances are.’
‘I want...’ Jack looked at the hilt of the sword, the sheath, the strap itself; all carefully made, all priceless. Pitch’s sword. He couldn’t afford to have second thoughts. Not now. He’d gone through three days of climbing up a mountain without his powers, Gwyn was still wearing his staff strapped to his back. He’d put himself through hell for this plan and he’d see it through, even if the Glasera said no, even if it meant that Pitch might not forgive him for it.
Jack turned to Gwyn to ask for his staff, but Gwyn understood and removed it quickly. He handed it back to Jack, who lowered it onto the table next to the sword. Then, pressing his lips together against the pain as the muscles in his shoulders shifted, he slid the sword out of its sheath. The blacksmith’s eyes lit up when he saw the quality of the metal, but he did not reach out to touch it as Gwyn had wanted to, the first time he’d seen it.
Jack reached into the pocket of his pants, and his fingers traced a small, misshapen locket.
He took a deep breath, ran over the words he’d been composing in his head for three days now, and decided they would have to do.
‘The warrior who wielded this sword has been possessed by the shadows that this sword repels. I want to know if you can break down the metal this sword is made of, and re-incorporate it into my staff, so that I can use it too. The sword is too heavy for me. But if you attached it to the outside of my staff, it wouldn’t be. I know the metal won’t save him on its own,’ Jack said, his voice catching, ‘but it might help. And honestly, I’ll take whatever I can get at this point. So, can you help me?’