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Stepping out of the shadows, Pan took a deep breath of crisp London air. Immediately, he could sense the presence of the few remaining siblings he had. One, in the cold bitterness of Russia, another in the harsh environment that was Mongolia. So few left, hardly any power left for them. The others felt his own mind and he could hear distant thoughts of love and welcome, contrasting with the wrath and fury of the wraiths that wear within proximity to him. It was always overwhelming in the beginning. It pressed around him, suffocating him, along with the distant wailing of the Auktross tree. He grabbed onto that despair and held tight, feeling the bond that just seconds ago been a small thread, now manifesting as a thick coil that would always connect him to Earth's tree of life.

It helped push past the emotions of nature, wraiths, his own feelings of anger.

"Looks like the next few days will be busy," Cass grimaced, glancing around their surroundings. It was the middle of the night, but there was still a bustle of activity throughout the city. Everywhere he looked, Pan saw shining beacons of light pushing through the smoggy air, pinpointing the locations of all the souls that needed to be gathered. Cassandra was right, there were more than usual.

"Let's get started then," Pan said, searching for the purple glow that indicated a wraith, shaking off the swell of rage he felt. Cass and Tam could handle the souls, but Pan was the only that could secure the wraiths without being overcome by their insanity.

Tam nodded, his features less animal-like now that they were on Earth, the same for Cass as well, and stepped out of the alleyway, though keeping close to the shadows so the humans wouldn't notice him, where he could travel almost instantaneously from one shadow to the next.

"Will you be okay?" Cass asked, worry clouding her eyes. "Last time..."

"Last time was... difficult. I'll be able to handle it, just, keep an eye on Tam and if you see anything or anyone out of the ordinary, let me know immediately. Something feels wrong here," Pan said, an ominous feeling washing over him. The back of neck prickled; it was the same feeling he'd gotten when Bramwë had mentioned her sister. It was disconcerting. He'd never felt this strange sinister power that poured out of the shadows, wrapping around him like cold fog and setting his mind on edge. While Cassandra nodded and disappeared, Pan took a deep breath and searched for the closest souls in the vicinity. There were a handful, and Pan melted back into the shadows, only to appear out the side of a stone wall to where a small child soul wandering aimlessly in a circle. It looked up at Pan, then continued to walk. Walking next to him, Pan held out his hand and took the child's in his, then used his free hand to push the spirit into a small ball of light, that he then pressed into his forearm.

It was a strange ability he'd received once he'd been banished to Neverland; where his forearms became a sort of holding area for the souls that he collected. He would condense the souls in small balls of light, not unlike when he sent a soul to the mermaids or to the afterlife, and then would press them into his skin, where they let off a gentle golden glow just under the thin layer of skin. He could only hold up to souls in each arm before he had to visit the Auktross.

He felt for his Lost Boys, as they did not have this ability, so for every soul they got, they had to ascend into the spiritual plane to anchor their souls the metaphysical bond they shared with Pan.

"Now, on the next few," Pan breathed out to himself. He would usually start off with the souls, to get back into the groove of collecting and strengthening his bond with the Tree, before he went after the wraiths, where he'd need the Auktross bond to be clear and strong before he tried to tackle one of those. The wraiths were different than regular spirits. As Death made their endless rounds of seeing to all souls whose time had come, he would take some, leave others before moving on and hope that Pan could get to them before they turned, and then continue around the world every day for as long as time had been around and would never rest until death ceased to be a natural way of life.

The wraiths were those left behind, that hadn't been visited by Death and had their earthly attachment severed with the wicked Death Scythe the god carried. Pan was the only other one that could break the chains, because of his bond with the Auktross and the ability to enter the astral plane to cut through them. Another reason for his current predicament of seeing over the worthless souls in his charge.

Closing his eyes, Pan secured a two more souls before he caught hold of his tether to the Auktross and stepped from the physical realm into the spiritual realm.

Opening his eyes, his gaze was immediately drawn to the tree. Around him was nothingness, dark wisps of fog curling around his feet, swirling around the thick red cord that secured Pan to the tree, an unbreakable bond forged hundreds of years ago.

The Auktross was magnificent, larger even than the Fairy Tree, reaching towards to the sky in a hopeless bid to one day meet. The bright colors of the leaves and deep oak wood looked similar to a watercolor painting. It was awe-inspiring and Pan felt an ache in his chest. The Auktross was probably the only thing he knew with certainty that he loved with all his being. He'd watched it grow from a tiny sapling to a huge towering spectacle of magnificence that clouded even the most wonderful of things. There had never been anything like it, and there never would. The despair he'd began to feel the moment he stepped out of Neverland and back onto Earth swelled even greater.

He was stuck on a desolate island to care for mindless creatures when he should have been on Earth, caring for, well, Earth. Instead, he'd been banished and the humans had been left in charge of saving the flora and fauna of this world, yet they'd almost completely destroyed it. What, with their smog and smoke that filled the skies and the trees and plants that were cut down to make room for the ever-expanding human population, and the animals that were hunted and killed for nothing other than sport.

It make him physically sick thinking of such things, his stomach twisting and churning in knots.

No.

He was here for a reason, and it was definitely not the time to get caught up in Earth and it's slowly declining health. He was here for the spirits, and for the spirits he would endure the rage and the anger and the urge to reach out his hand towards the man that had brushed past his physical hiding spot, deep in the shadows of an alley.

Pan pulled his hand back, the bleak London skyline rushing back to meet him as the spiritual plane vanished from his sight, leaving only dust and dirt paved walkways and a lone human in Pan's way. Looking over at the human, Pan saw him toss the butt of a cigar towards a group of flowers that had sprung up from the dirt, fighting a hopeless battle. A small flash of flame caught his eye and the flowers were nothing but a smoldering heap a few seconds later.

Many years ago, before he'd imbued the entirety of his nature magic into the Auktross to erect a protection cover for the tree, he'd been able to hear the songs of all plant-life, and the screams of terror as they were brutally murdered, with no blessing or sacred ritual to praise the life of earth.

Even now, when he could no longer hear such things, the faint memory of dying nature made Pan emit a low growl, baring his teeth as he caught the man by the collar of his long coat. The mortal let out a surprised yelp, before his jaw clamped shut at the sight of Pan. In his earthly form, Pan's curled ram horns had regressed until they were just small numbers near his temples and his face, by comments made by Cass, grew 'more handsome and less psycho-nature-god-like', but he was still different in a way that made the man tremble in fear.

"You think you can just live on this planet, this earth that provides for you, has everything you need to survive, and yet you casually go around destroying the very thing that is keeping you alive." Pan took a breath, trying to reign back his increasing rage, the dark swirling energy in his stomach that was forcing his calm demeanor to the back-burner and letting the madness slip through.

The man let out a shrill reply, "who the hell do you think you are?"

"I am Pan, the god of nature that does not take kindly to threats upon this world," he yanked the collar of the man and forced him to look into the smoggy disgusting sky that no longer held the beautiful skies and stars that lit up the night, instead covering it with toxic pollution and smoky clouds that gave little to the magnificent country side that Pan had been enamored with hundreds of years ago. He pulled the man around to face him, and summoned the scythe blade he'd been given by Death himself. It was large, but felt weightless in his hand, the blade sharp as ever and beautiful in it's simple design. It held no power like the Death Scythe, but it put fear into the hearts of disgusting men and made them cower in fear the rest of their lives, awaiting the time the real Scythe cut through their spiritual energy and severed the soul from it's earthly vessel.

The man was trembling now, the clean cut mustache above his lip quivering slightly. He sank to the ground so quickly that Pan lost his grip on the man's shirt collar.

"Oh dear god," the man murmured, tears now streaming down his broad face.

"I am not god, and there are no longer any gods to answer your prayers. You humans made sure of that when you all but wiped out the hundreds of gods that had been helping you the entirety of the human civilization. Now they've faded into oblivion and the only god you should be worried about his Death. And I," Pan crouched next to the man so he could stare into his eyes, "am the collector of souls. Perhaps," he lifted the man up and summoned the scythe blade he'd been given by Death himself. It was large, but felt weightless in his hand, the blade sharp as ever and beautiful in it's simple design. It held no power like the Death Scythe, but it put fear into the hearts of disgusting men and made them cower in fear the rest of their lives, awaiting the time the Scythe cut through their spiritual energy and severed the soul from it's earthly vessel. .

Though it had not the power of the Scythe, it was something Death had given Pan on their second meeting, a physical manifestation for Pan to carry that would help him visualize the cutting of the chains that held wraiths down, other than that, it was a pretty ornament.

He and his Lost Boys were only able to collect the souls Death had already severed from the earthly decaying bodies. It was Pan and his Boys that were meant to collect these souls, quickly, before they became wraiths- though that was inevitable with the three-day restriction Pan was forced to comply with. The wraiths were essential to the barrier though, so it wasn't something Pan was terribly upset with, besides the ethical dilemma of letting a soul rot in one place until all they knew was anger and malicious intent. After the collecting of souls, Pan would then take them afterlife pillars, scattered throughout the globe and only visible and accessibly to those that would never die.

The man cowered on the ground, mumbling through his sobs that he wasn't ready to die and he still had good to give the world, and would the god please not kill him.

Pan crouched and brushed the dull edge of the scythe against the man's face, leaving a thick cut across his cheek. Small drops of blood bled down his face, and the pulsing sensation to stab the scythe through the mans left eye and watch as it came out the other side intrigued Pan.

"Your pleas fall on deaf ears, mortal. I am not Death, though from the looks of you, I'm sure he'll be along shortly to dispose you. Now," Pa said, pressing his face the side of the man's so he could whisper, "if I were you, I would treat all earthly children with the utmost respect and care that you would your own family. If not, I will be back, and I will torture you. At this point, you should realize that even though I am not Death, and never hope to be, I can still inflict pain unimaginable to you and suffer no consequences, and I will rejoice. Once less filthy human on this world. Do not take these words lightly human," Pan mused in the man's ear. "I have no restrictions on inflicting all kinds of sadistic pain on you and your family. And countless others. Now, get out of here, heed my words. And I will know. I always now the deaths of flowers and plants and trees. It's in my blood, and I do not take kindly to people like you that destroy for no goddamn reason. Now, get out here scum."

The man nodded, eyes wide and mouth agape, as he scrambled up and ran out of the alley.

"Handled... well, I suppose," a voice said, mist and darkness shrouding a figure that stepped out of shadows. A cold hand pressed itself to Pan's heart.

Death was, to Pan's knowledge, the one that had requested the nature god as the new Neverland overseer, something that had never been disclosed to Pan. The deity had just one day shown up in fifteenth century Greece and asked Pan to do a service for the good of the earth. Though what Pan was sure they had recruited him because of the strong connection to the Auktross which, and it had not been a service for the good of Earth, it was a service to the souls of the humans that were constantly destroying everything he held dear to himself.

"Fuck, I was hoping you wouldn't show up for another few hundred years." Pan sneered, lip curling and eyes narrowing. 

"What's a few centuries between immortal friends?" Death said, stepping out of the shadows, though they continued to curl around their body, occasionally taking forms of animals that circled him. Pulling back their reaper hood, Death gave a chilling smile. Chilling in the fact that it was halfway to decomposition, with half of the face hanging off in clumps, maggots squirming around in the decaying flesh. Their entire body was rotten and smelled worse than the blood of a Neverbeast.

"Ugh," Pan grimaced, covered his mouth and nose. "What do you want?"

Death stared at him with empty eye sockets. "I see you are still suffering from the madness."

"I've always been suffering from that, if you didn't already know," he said, absentmindedly feeling at the nubs of his horns. "It was much worse then; I could hear everything, see all the deaths..."

"That's not the madness I am speaking of," Death said, their soothing voice threatening to worm their way into Pan's head and make him lose his grip on his anger and frustration. "I am speaking of the madness that you feel once you step from Neverland to Earth and then back from Earth to Neverland. It causes you considerable physical strain, and your mental stability crumbles with every trip you take. Unless, you accept your role."

"Role?" Pan spat on the ground, meshing back into the shadows, appearing out of the interior wall of a old decrepit church that housed am older wraith. It must have been one he'd missed, because it was around two years old, bullet-like holes covering every inch of the tainted soul, barely held together in a semi-humanoid form.

"The role you took up in Neverland. You have not accepted it." Death said, appearing beside Pan as he studied the wraith. It was old and powerful and not something that would be easy to contain, unless... Pan glanced over at the god. Perfect.

He touched Death's hand and stepped in to the astral plane. Unlike with spirits, that glowed with the softest baby blue, wraiths bubbled with dark purple energy, fighting against the sparkling light that was the Auktross. As expected, there were hundreds of chains that held the wraith to the Auktross. Pan alone would have a hard time getting through all of them before they reattached, but with one quick swipe of the Scythe and it would be done, and Pan could continue on his way.

"Astral plane," Death sniffed, "I hate this place." The nothingness curled around the reaper as if they were old friends, and Death shooed them away with an arcing swing of their cloak. The effervescent light that emanated from the Tree brushed past Death and they sighed. "It's good to see an old friend, though."

His first visit with Death, Pan had taken them to the Auktross tree, not in the astral realm, but its true hiding spot, where it was forever protected by the enormous magical barrier Pan had placed upon it. During that time, Death had said that they had been drawn to the Tree when they were just a primordial entity, and with the growth of the sapling, they had taken on the humanoid form they now wore. They had seen the birth of the nature spirits, and had observed from time to time Pan and his siblings frolicking about in a place of peace and plenty.

Death could have probably handled everything that to do with the souls, the collecting, the severing, the sending to afterlife, but they'd decided eons ago that they was wearing themself too thin, and as a result, more and more wraiths sprang up, until Death had decided to get helpers. Helpers meaning Pan.

"Scythe?" Pan asked, holding his hand out.

Death looked at him, then back at the wicked scythe they carried, power emanating through it in shock waves, then back to Pan.

"This one time," Death said in a voice steeped with threat, handing the Scythe over, the flesh in their hands hanging on for dear life by a few small threads of skin near their wrist. Pan took it from the skeletal hand, grunting as it hit the ground with a large thud.

Taking a deep breath, Pan heaved the Scythe over his shoulder, which must have weighed at least a ton, the edge of the weapon slicing deeply into his shoulder, and cut through the earthly chains that secured the wraith to Earth, the wraith screaming in protest the whole time. The power from the Scythe emanated through Pan's hand, and when Death reached out to take it, he struggled to hand it back. It was so powerful... so beautiful...

Handing back the Scythe so he wasn't overcome with the great power, he gripped the wraith by its neck while it squirmed and howled in protest, it's voice having becoming raspy and low with pain. He used his other hand to condense the spirit until it was but a small orb of dark purple light.

Pan fastened the wraith to the far end of the cord, away from the clean souls, before steeping out of the astral pane and back into the old Victorian home the wraith had been trapped in.

""You've done well, Pan," Death remarked, pulling their hood up to conceal their ghastly form. "But, you will always have the madness until you accept your purpose. And, I have something for you. I found this while wondering through the back alleys." Death stretched forth their hand to reveal a small pinprick of dust.

But it wasn't regular dust. It was fairy dust from the Fairy Tree, the glow it emitted giving it away. How in the hell had that gotten there? Early on, before Pan had learned the way to create Lost Boys, he had taken a few fairies with him to identify all the souls. But that had been years ago.

Pan took the dust particle and examined it carefully, bringing to his nose. Yes, definitely from Neverland, and definitely Tinkerbelle: she had an earthy smell mixed with copper and sage. He would always know Tinkerbelle's scent; she had been on of the more intelligent fairies and had learned English very quickly with the help of both Pan and Bramwë. She'd been lost years ago when Pan had taken a handful of fairies with him to Earth, where they would travel into the dreams of children, changing nightmares to dreams of castles and magical creatures.

Now, he no longer permitted any faerie to cross over. It was too much of a risk.

But the dust... It also carried something... different. That lingering feeling Pan had noticed the moment he set foot on Earth.

"Thank you," Pan said, placing the dust into a small pocket.

"I see you've been partaking in the tears again," Death remarked, looking at him with one normal eye, the other hanging limply by a strand of muscle, swinging below its cheekbone. "The Neverfairies are some of the most peaceful creatures I have come across. With the creation of Neverland came the creation of the fairies. Without them, Neverland would crumble." They sighed, swinging the death Scythe with practiced ease. "It is a pity that they must endure pain for the sake of the human souls and the barrier." They mused, then sunk into the shadows. "I hope to see you again soon, my dear friend, and I hope you will be in the right state of mind."

Pan leered at him, his mouth down turned into a scowl. "Thank you for your wisdom, ole' god of Death. You know, you could do all of this yourself. I don't see why I even need to do this."

With a soft sigh, Death turned to Pan, the Scythe dematerializing into nothingness. "You have not been here, you have not lived here for hundreds of years. The death and wars are a plenty. There are so many souls to collect and not enough time. I need you Pan, you are an essential part of this world, not to mention Neverland. The souls need somewhere to go, and I need someone to help with ferrying the souls to the afterlife. If there were more of me... But, alas, there is only one. Do not think of yourself as a forgotten god, forced into the work of another. You keep the world safe, from wraiths, and other dark sources that seek to wreak havoc on these poor defenseless mortals." With another sigh, this one full of despair and mourning, they continued. "Many gods have passed on, as no one believes in them anymore. There are so very little now."

Glaring, Pan asked, "What does 'dark forces' mean? This is not the time for your cryptic warnings, old man."

"Old man," Death chuckled, though it sounded like a wheezing cough due to the deterioration of the their vocal cords. "I am no man. Nor woman. I am simply Death. Regarding your question, have you ever heard of Limbo?"

Limbo. That was the realm that Bramwë was from.

"Yes, what about it?" Pan asked, leaning against the hard brick wall of the church.

"There are many realms that I know of, Pan, but the three that pertain to you are Earth, Neverland, and Limbo."

"What does Limbo have to do with me?"

"Have you never listened to anything I've said to you before?" Death asked, their voice taking on a dangerous edge. "I told you in the beginning that the magical barrier protects Earth and Neverland, while also separating them. Did you never think to ask what it is being protected from? Have you been so absorbed in your supposed misery of being in charge of Neverland that you never questioned it?"

No, the question had never occurred to Pan. What Death had said was true. He'd moped for a few decades, messed with the Fairy Tree, befriended Bramwë, learned of Tears and the magical barrier ingredients, collecting souls... He'd had no time to think of anything else.

"Limbo is the realm of the fey. When they first appeared because of the weak barrier that Neverland could not sustain on its own, you were visiting the Auktross I believe. It was terrible. They would come through unstable gateways and terrorize the mortals steal their children, keep others as slaves in their morbid realm. That was one of the main reasons that I had to pick someone to look after Neverland. I chose you because of your deep connection to the Tree that was stronger than all the other nature gods, the inherent magic inside of you, and your keen intelligent. I knew you would find the right ritual to restore the barrier."

Pan blinked. "That's why you chose me? I wasn't being punished?" All these years he'd thought the gods or god, whichever was left on Earth, had banished him to Neverland for some reason. Not as a protector of realms. "So 'Limbo', why are you bringing that up now if the barrier is protecting Earth?"

"The barrier may be extremely strong, but there are small gateways that will appear when the barrier begins to weaken right before you start your ritual. It is my belief that something has crossed over. And I believe," Death looked pointedly at the pocket Pan had placed the dust particle in. "It has something to do with that. Can you not feel it? Something dark and powerful has invaded this world."

"And you want me to what? Get rid of this fey? The only thing I am worried about is the souls. Anything else, that's not my job."

"But it is your job, Pan!" Death growled, shadows surging forward and wrapping themselves around Pan in a cloak of darkness. He brushed them away, irritation starting to take hold, the pounding of anger against his head making his ears ring. "A being from a dark realm has entered Earth, and whether or not you take responsibility, this is your fault. The barrier is your burden, and it is your job to keep Earth and Neverland protected from these beings."

Simmering with rage, Pan turned to leave, to slip into the shadows and resume his duties. "I'll investigate on my next visit. If you find out anything else, we can meet at the Second Star." Since Pan had been given the mantle of overseeing Neverland, Death was no longer able to visit. But with the Second Star, similar to the astral plane, it was an in-between for Earth and Neverland. It was eerie and gave Pan excruciating migraines, but it was useful in situations like this. "I'll take care of the rest of the souls here. Tamaerean and Cassandra are working in a few of the northern European countries, so you don't have to worry about those." Death took its leave in silence, with a swish of the huge cloak and they slipped into the shadows and were gone.

Gods, why hadn't Death told him of this when he'd first started? How the hell was he supposed to know that he needed to keep Earth and Neverland protected against another realm that hosted creatures, somewhat like Bramwë, but darker, more feral?

Pan walked into the shadows and appeared near a pillar.

The pillars were small platforms of the most beautiful rose gold, visible only to immortals. There were hundreds, possibly thousands scattered throughout the world. Pan stepped back into the astral plane, the pillar glowing with a luminescent light. Gathering up all the souls that were fixed to the Auktross coil, leaving the wraith there to scream and shake, he placed one soul at a time on the pillar. He never knew where each soul went, he would place them in the center of the pillar, it would flash a brilliant light, and then start akin with the remaining ones. He placed the last one on the pillar and nothing happened. That meant he would take the soul to Neverland, and hopefully, soon, it would receive it's Judgment.

Sighing, Pan closed his eyes and searched for his Lost Boys. On Earth, they were connected to him in the same way Pan and the Auktross were connected, though with a smaller coil. He found them, their spiritual forms taking on a soft ruby red color. They had a handful of souls affixed to each of their coils. He sent those to the pillars, watched them go into whichever afterlife they had been served.

Pan noticed rays of sunlight peeking over a faraway mountain. Morning. That was the worst. They could still gather souls in daylight, it was just harder to get around when the shadows weren't as plentiful. Usually during this time, he would let Tam and Cass wander around, even though a mortal could tell there was something off about them.

Cass had lost her facial and body marking and her tail and ears and claws, but just one look and a wry smile on Cassandra's part, and a human would gaze at her in a kind of wonder, trying to guess what she was, though not being able to comprehend that she was not of Earth, or hadn't been for some time.

Tam was a different story entirely. He had lost his wolfish appearance, with the fur and ears and teeth, but that smile of his. He was probably the most criminally insane Lost Boy Pan had ever created, but he offset that with his exuberance and playful manner, which made for an odd combination of mortals becoming fast friends with him and then leaving just as quickly when the darker side of him came out.

One of the reasons Pan had chosen Tam as his first in command, they had similar minds, and Tam understood, on some level, what Pan went through each time he crossed from Earth to Neverland and back again. It was either him or Bramwë that sat near him at the Pool of Madness,which was something Pan felt was sacred since at that time he would be his most vulnerable state.

"Morning already, eh?" Tam said, appearing next to Pan, brushing away a small baby wolf spirit that had followed him through the shadow portals. His Lost Boys always seemed to attract animal spirits that coincided with the change they went through in the Pool of Madness. Tam was wolf-like, so he attracted canines; Cass was more feline, so she attracted those beastly creatures.

"Looks like it. Try not to make a ruckus before tonight. How's Cass doing?" Pan asked, fingering the grain of dust in his pocket, stress eating at him.

"She's off somewhere, but we got a lot of souls today. I was even able to scare the wits out of this drunken fool." Tam laughed, perching himself on a broken ledge. "Did you see Death this time?"

"No," Pan answered shortly. He'd investigate Tinkerbelle's dust trail before he spoke of it to anyone, even Bramwë, who had been devastated at the loss. "Let's just get this over with and get back for the ritual."

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M.C. Kapo
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