Floating in the dark recesses of one's mind was not as fun as it was made out to be.
Pan waded in the Pool of Madness, eyes shut, content for just a moment as his madness drained out of his pores and into the cerulean blue water, bubbling just slightly from the influx of energy.
Tamaerean lay beside the edge of the pool, trying to play a few notes on Pan's handcrafted pan flute. He was absolutely terrible, but the sound of it drew Pan's mind back to the moment he had received the flute as a gift from a mortal. It had only been a few years Earth time, but Pan had forgotten her name, forgotten what she looked like, forgotten why he had been visiting with a human at all those years ago.
"Are you finished trying to aggravate me?" Pan murmured, opening one eye to stare at the odd semi-circular rainbow that was Neverland's sun, but with just one ray of golden color. He'd always hated that sun, and much preferred the orb of glorious sunlight from Earth.
"I am trying," Tam grumbled, "to figure out how to play this dastardly thing. But, it is impossible." He stood up and threw up his hands, tossing the flute to Pan who caught it before it hit the surface of the Pool. "You're the only one that can play it because you're, well, it's named after you right? So, you must have created it."
"It was a gift," Pan stated, pulling himself over the edge of the Pool, taking in the sweet smell of Neverland's plant life before standing and expelling the water that drenched his body and clothes back into the Pool.
"From Bramwë?" Tam asked, jumping back as he was almost hit with a single droplet of Madness. Though all Lost Boys were cleansed in the Pool-for mere seconds-its effect on them could dissolve the skin off their bones or turn them back into wraiths.
Pan turned the flute over in his hand, brushed his fingers over the fine wood. "No. Someone... else."
Tamaerean didn't reply, though his wide eyes gave away his curiosity. If not Bramwë, who else would deign to give the nature god a gift? Not fairies, as their relationship with Pan was strained, for good reason, though it hurt Pan's heart as he tried his hardest to make up for his misfortunes, nor the mermaids, who would have laughed at such a notion, and instead would have asked for another soul to eat. Neither his Lost Boys, as Pan asked nothing and expected nothing of them except their loyalty and their help.
"Did you get a full report from Tiva and Markov?" Pan asked, opting to walk in the grass as Tam floated lazily by his side, leaving behind trails of pixie dust that, once they touched upon the ground, were quickly absorbed by the soil and recycled back through the Fairy Tree, where Pan and his Lost Boys gathered their daily dust.
"Of course, I just left you the moment you closed your eyes in the Pool of Madness for any type of creature to come upon you, to get that report for you." Tam drawled, "Which obviously I didn't do. But, Cass got it, and updated me. Two Neverbeasts near Hangman's Cliff, the Boys were able to take down one, but the other got away. Daeva is tracking that one, and so far, it's been skirting the edges of the Fairy Tree. Hook has been oddly... idle as of late."
Pan turned to him sharply. "What does that mean?"
"It means," Tam said slowly, "that he hasn't docked on land for the last three weeks."
Three weeks? Pan tried to remember back that far, but the trip back from Earth always jumbled up his mind to the point he felt like an invalid. Hook always docked at least once every two weeks to resupply for food and water, and sent out scouts to try and bypass their way through the Lost Boys' guarded perimeter of the Fairy Tree. That old man had been trying his damnedest to get the Neverfairies- for what reason, it alluded Pan- for what... ten Earth years now?
"Poppy tells me the deep-water mermaids have been trailing them, hoping they'll all die. But, I sent Frederick and a few fairies to scout out by the clouds, and they said they overheard Hook talking of, oh gods, what was the word? A... I think it was a drug-lord? Whatever the hell that is."
What in the actual fuck.
There were the souls, the mermaids, the fairies, the Neverbeasts, Bramwë, the Lost Boys, Hook and his ever dwindling crew, and Pan. There were no other living, humanoid creatures in this realm- Pan had checked- and as far as Pan knew, Hook had somehow gotten here using the Second Star and was unable to leave.
Which had been very odd when it had happened, the great ship of Captain Tiberius Hook dropping from the sky and landing in the outskirts of the sea that surrounded Neverland. Pan had of course questioned it, but had never figured anything out other than the fact that the entire ship, the Syrennia, was full of powerful magical energy, which he assumed had somehow made its way through the Second Star only to become trapped, and Hook had set his sights on using the fairies as a means to leave, somehow or someway.
Those had been his initial thoughts.
"Sounds like the old dog is finally losing his grip on reality," Pan smiled, something he found hard as he rarely ever smiled. "Best news I've gotten in awhile."
Tamaerean chuckled, "eh, maybe the mermaids will get to them this time, and we won't have to worry about those blasted pirates trying to steal our little fairy babies anymore."
Doubtful. Pan assumed the Syrennia had enough magical power to provide at least some cover from the mermaids, especially given the fact that they were still alive.
"Were you able to get the souls sent to the afterlife?"
"There weren't any ready to go when we got back, I had Cassandra double-check Skull Rock and then Hangman's Cliff, but no Judgments have come through."
Well, that was disappointing, but a problem he would leave for another day, as today was the Replenishing Rite.
The center of the Fairy Tree was magnificent: there was a large hole, big enough for Pan himself to crawl into, but he wouldn't dare, as four wraiths had been secured inside, writhing around, their screams muted from the sound barrier the Tree had made to cover the wretched noises.
Now, this was the second most difficult part of the ritual. The first being when he actually began the barrier rejuvenation, but the wraith draining trailed not far behind.
Pan set one hand on the dark burgundy bark of the Tree, and it rippled under his hands, responding to his touch, lifting off of the tree to slowly embed itself into his wrist-snapping the bone in two-so he could access the power the Tree held. He winced against the familiar pain, and used his other hand to reach into the hole and grab hold of all four wraiths, their energy clashing against his, pulling him towards them, but Pan was stronger and he yanked backward, wresting the purple energy from the wraiths semi-transparent forms, which died out into nothing.
He then rubbed the inside of the Fairy Tree with the energy, which adhered to the bark like tree sap.
The bark of the Tree groaned in protest, but accepted the energy, which trickled down the rivets of the bark into the black gurgling mess that was the Pool of Tears.
Even so, the anger and insanity of the wraiths jarred Pan's mind, causing him to pull out of the containment hole and jerk his hand free of the Tree. This was why he always made sure to soak in his Pool of Madness. If he didn't, he'd be overcome with insanity and if that happened... he couldn't imagine how the island would react to his mental state. It had a hard enough time already dealing with Pan's dark mind, it didn't need the insanity of four other dark creatures.
Pan snapped his broken wrist back into place, trying to realign the bones before the real work began. His healing was fast, but whenever he worked with the Tree, it slowed to a mortal rate. Of course, it couldn't be easy. Everything had to be fucking difficult and painful and repetitive.
For weeks leading up to the ritual, Pan would gather a handful of fairies and pull of their wings, cut into their delicate skin, squeeze out every tear available to add to the Pool of Tears, as they were essential to the mixture. In the beginning, a few of his Lost Boys had helped, but he'd seen what it had done to them, torturing innocent creatures they had pledged to protect. For some, it had broken them, and Pan had had to kill them in the Madness Pool, as they couldn't live with the guilt, the torment.
So, Pan now took care of that himself. Let the fairies hate him, let them curse his name, his very existence, he would endure it, so no one else would have to.
Then, he would gather Madness water and mix that in, and once they got the wraith's soul energy, Pan would merge his body to the Tree.
It was a terrible ordeal, and Pan remembered the excruciating pain of every ritual, which compounded on the pain that he would feel once again, over and over and over. It would be a never-ending cycle in which he would endure for the rest of his immortal life.
Now that he knew he hadn't been sent here as punishment or banishment, and had instead been handpicked by Death himself to watch over these very careless souls, he wondered why he had to repeat this vicious cycle. Was there a way he could create a massive barrier that could sustain itself for years without Pan having to sacrifice himself?
Death had explained that Neverland could not help itself on it's own.
"Suck it up, you worthless god," Pan muttered to himself. He pulled off his tunic, stitched together from the flora of Neverland by Bramwë, and instead opted for a simple overly-large shirt he had picked up in the trash in London. The ritual was hellish, and he liked to keep his things in pristine condition.
Nearby, Cass and another Lost Boy were swirling a massive tree branch in the Pool of Tears, pushing against the heavy sludge that bubbled and gulped, energy crackling along the surface.
"Is it ready?"
"Yes!" Cassandra answered, tugging the branch out of the Pool, wiping sweat off her brow.
Pan pushed his back against the Tree, and stretched out his arms, palms flat against the bark, feet set firmly on two large roots that jutted out of the ground. He looked over at Bramwë and the group of fairies she had gathered, most his recent victims, or the ones that had been tortured for this ritual. She nodded at him, and began to gather handfuls of water into small leave buckets the fairies could easily carry and pour over Pan.
Tiva and Markov, his watch leaders, stood at the ready, bows and arrows strapped to their backs, floating a few feet off the ground, in case that Neverbeast showed up.
Pan took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and grabbed hold of the Fairy Tree's spirit. It was akin to the astral plane the Auktross manifested their bond, though slightly different. He beckoned to the shimmering soul he saw in his mind, and let it enter into his chest, attach to his heart.
That was when the Tree broke apart around Pan, limbs and roots coiling around his body, pushing through his skin, shredding his muscles into nothing, snapping through his bones as their wiggled their way into his body to become one with him.
The excruciating pain made Pan clamp his jaws shut lest he cry out. He would not be weak. Not even when a stick stabbed him through his eye, blood pouring down his face as it moved around in his head, tearing his face apart, his cheekbone shattering upon the intrusion, the stick emerging through the hole before slamming into his collarbone, flesh and bits of bone and blood splattering the once-green mossy grass.
It was gruesome, painful, and absolutely necessary. One would think Pan would be used to it, after having done it so many times over the years, but each time felt like the first.
Black spots entered his vision as he struggled to keep his eyes open, blood and liquid clouding his eyesight.
And then came the barrier mixture, pouring down his body, fusing into the Tree. It burned his skin, made it bubble and slide down his exposed flesh. This was when the Tree would suck out his magic, the Earth magic, the nature magic that made him who he was.
It always replenished itself within a few days, but the feeling of having his very soul ripped out of his chest and fusing with something other than himself was excruciating. By instinct, he tried to grab it and pull it back, but the Fairy Tree was stronger and ripped it from his grasp with a force that knocked the wind out of his chest. He coughed and sputtered, attempting to regain his breathing, but his blood leaked into his mouth, and he could feel the barrier concoction as it burned his tongue, the tears mixed in giving him a euphoric high as his eyes fell heavily closed and he passed out.
"I need sap from the blue Caro flower, Cassandra. Quickly!"
Pan's eyes fluttered open at Bramwë's shout, and he winced, his body burning like he had been resting in the middle of a pool of lava, his insides slowly melting into sludge, his skin tearing away from his muscles.
"Holy fuck," Pan breathed, grimacing as the scabbed over parts of his cheek broke open, blood trickling down his chin. He looked over at his arm. He looked like Death, goddammit.
On one arm, his skin was being stitched back to his body by a few careful, precision-oriented fairies that Bramwë called her Medic Unit, having spent years teaching them the art of medicinal duties. The other was black and blue, black goo bubbling out of giant holes where he could see his bones.
He looked down from his supine position to check out the damage to the rest of his body. There were holes aplenty where the limbs of the tree had broken through his skin and insides. His legs were the worst, twisted at odd angles and bones shattered, pieces lying next to him.
This was nothing new to him, he'd done this ritual so many times over the years, but this one felt worse. The Tree had drained him completely. He no longer felt any rage from the wraiths, which was odd as there was usually a residual feeling left over from the barrier replenishing.
Which meant that Neverland was trying to create a larger, more powerful barrier this time.
To protect itself. But from what?
"Will this take long?" Pan said through gritted teeth, trying to keep his pounding head from exploding.
Bramwë leaned over from where she was working on his abdomen. "Not if you keep moving and talking. Now sit still and this will be over in a few hours. Hopefully the rain will stop by then so the fairies and the Boys can resume their hunt."
"For that Neverbeast. He's lurking near the edge of the Fairy Tree." Bramwë cocked her head. "It is very strange. Most never come close to the border, but this one has been testing it, possibly trying to find a weak spot. Maybe for the fairy dust? The Tree itself? The reason is beyond me."
Pan struggled to sit up, his body aching in protest. "Then we need to kill the bastard. Let me get up."
"No," Bramwë's gaze was fierce, her eyes boring into his. "Your arm is practically falling off, your bones need mending and you have no magic."
"I have my bokken," Pan replied, laying back down. The bokken in question, which may just have been a practice sparring weapon on Earth, was one he had fashioned himself from a very old,very powerful root of the Fairy Tree. As such, it had a beautifully sharp edge and magical properties that let it slice through anything with ease. Especially the neck of a Neverbeast.
"Tam is using it. He and a couple of others have been watching its movements. They have agreed to wait until you are healed before taking any action."
Sighing, Pan ground his teeth. There was just so much going on at the moment. The possibility of finding Tinkerbelle, alive, this fey that had been on Earth for at least a decade, and Neverbeasts. Those hellish creatures were what nightmares were based on. Amalgamations of creatures stitched and sewn together in horrible, grotesque caricatures of what they may have been before.
They were not creatures of Earth, and neither were they creatures of Neverland, as the fairies had said, though the oldest fairy, who lived among the old souls on Hangman's Cliff, spoke to no one of the beginning years of Neverland.
"Thank you," Pan breathed out, to both Bramwë and the group of medical fairies that were working on him. He let the residual effects of the barrier potion cloud his mind as they finished up their work.
Cracking open an eye halfway, an act that sent spasms of pain coursing throughout his body, Pan set his sites on the unwelcome visitor.
"Is this over with?" He grunted, biting down on his tongue as he closed his eye.
"Oh sweet Pan, it's only been about ten minutes since you passed out," Bramwë's reply came from the side of him, her voice helping to soothe his aching head.
"What?" Pan twisted his head to the side, to look at his mess of an arm, but it was bandaged with pink dusted leaves, as was the rest of his body, and he was no longer on the ground, but in his cot he had set up in the tops of the Fairy Tree branches.
"I think she just made a joke..." Tamaerean whispered in Pan's ear, hovering about as usual. Pan glared at him, settling back into a position where he could sit up slightly, and not have to move any part of his body, to watch the Neverland beaches, as the waves rocked against the far shores.
"Please tell me what he's doing here," Pan groaned out to Bramwë, who sat on her knees beside him, redressing his abdomen.
"I believe he's here because he loves you," Bramwë answered, gazing intently at the bloody leaves she had in her hand. One second later, a small puff of smoke, and the leaves were turning to ash in a very small fire that had lit itself just an inch or so above her hands.
"Well, yeah, I guess so," Tam said, scratching his neck. "But, I didn't say that exactly, I mean, I said I was bored and came to see how you were healing."
"I believe that is what I said," Bramwë muttered, watching the ash fly away into the sky.
"I thought you were supposed to be tailing that Neverbeast-"
"Daeva is tracking it, I told you. Cass, Tiva, Jeremy, and Grunt are all circling the island, and the rest are protecting the perimeter, besides Markov, who is conferring with the fairies about Hook. I'm not sure what that's about, but you know he loves to gossip."
Huh. So, occasionally he could trust Tamaerean to do exactly what he was supposed to. Pan gave him a small nod of appreciation, noticing there were more fur patches appearing on the Lost Boy's body, especially on his forearms. Soon he would look like a walking, talking wolf. In other words, a werewolf.
It was almost comical.
If it wasn't inherently depressing. His Lost Boys, he'd become the Judge for them, taking their mangled souls and cleansing them in his Pool. A chance to become a Lost Boy, or to be drained and put into the magical barrier as a million different particles.
Tam had been around the longest, so his animal traits were the farthest along, though Cass was not far behind, and there was no telling how much longer it would be until Tam was no longer Lost Boy, but animal. Or if he would even make it that far.
He had been on Neverland for hundreds of years, and yet, there were many times he felt he knew absolutely nothing about it.
A bone cracked and snapped, making Pan lose his focus as he stared Tamaerean down, a new pain radiating down his left leg. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Your leg," Tam pointed to it, leaves a dark red as blood gushed out the healing wound. "Was all wonky, so I set it into place. You're welcome," he grinned at Bramwë, who nodded, lips pursed.
"Correct, I did not notice that, thank you Tamaerean. Perhaps I should be training you in the art of medicine,"
Tam made a face, then looked at Pan. "Nah, I could never leave that guy with just Cassandra."
"Trust me," Pan grunted, laying back into the Tree, steadying his breathing so as to not focus on the pain. He needed a tear, not a Pain tear, but possibly a Sad or Happy one, they had more healing properties than the high he got from the Pain ones. "You'd get sick of him after a day or so."
"So nasty..." Tamaerean murmured, reaching beside Pan to pick up the flute. "I'll be borrowing this. Poppy said she wanted to hear it."
"I do not think those creatures know what friendship is, Tamaerean, do not be sucked into their lies." Bramwë said, her eyes sharp. "Your likability and casual flippancy can only get you so far."
"Just, stay away from the water," Pan advised, feeling his ram horns. They were getting larger, thicker.
"Thank you, father, I had no idea that the mermaids could, and would, try to eat me. It's not like I've been here for decades." Tamaerean scoffed. "I'll take that as you care, and I'll be on my way."
He shot through the top of the Fairy Tree, in the direction of Mermaid Cove.
"He may have been here far longer than any of the others, but I don't think he's actually aged mentally," Pan mused, watching Bramwë add fresh leaf wraps to his leg, using the softest touch so as not to aggravate his wound.
"The mystery of the Lost Boys. They change, yes, and I have noticed that Cassandra and Tamaerean are gaining more animal-like qualities faster than usual, but their minds... are akin to what they were before they passed." The fey shrugged, finishing up her work. She stood and brushed off her gown, which always managed to stay pristine despite of what she had just dealt with. "That is what I think anyway. Though the rapid changes are concerning to me. I also feel that you are weaker than usual, the barrier more powerful than previous rituals."
She narrowed her gaze at Pan, and in that one look, he could tell she knew he was keeping something from her.
"If you think you are able to keep secrets from me, Pan, then you are not quite as clever as you think you are. When you are ready to talk to me of what is happening, and I know something is going on, I will be here. Always." With that, she began her descent down the Tree, and somehow made it look elegant.
Pan sighed. Bramwë was too keen and observant. Though he should have known she'd notice the lack of his magic and the barrier; she was, after all, tailored to the Fairy Tree and had been in Neverland for centuries upon centuries.
"I received a visit from Death the first day I was on Earth."
Bramwë stopped, looked up at Pan, "and?"
"They're worried, about Tinkerbelle," Pan breathed out. Not a lie, but not the entire truth.
"Tinkerbelle?" Bramwë's eyes softened slightly. "She has been gone for a decade, why would they be worried about her now?"
"I'm not sure, they said they'd summon me when they were ready to talk more." Pan shrugged.
"Interesting. You must tell me everything the next time the two of you meet." Bramwë said, resuming her climb down, her small lithe body disappearing just moments later in the many leaves and branches of the Tree.
Pan laid himself out on the rocky surface, getting quite uncomfortable. He'd need to be to get this dreadful task over with.
The souls on Skull Rock looked to be a massive group of people you'd find in an asylum, pacing, running, waving their arms at nothing.
They rarely ever spoke, as they were not aware of their current state. Death had said it was as if they were reliving the moments up to their deaths, stuck in an endless loop until they were sent to the pillars, or to the mermaids.
Sighing with an exaggeration Tam would approve of, Pan settled down and began to count every soul.
After every ritual, Pan would come out to Skull Rock and made sure he could account for each and every one. Once he reached the last, he took that number and matched each soul up with their star, making sure they all added up and there was not a soul without a star, or a star without a soul.
That had never happened, and Pan had no idea what he would do, or what would happen , if something like that occurred.
The seas would probably swallow Neverland in one gulp, and Earth would crumble and be overcome with wraiths and fey.
Or maybe not.
Either way, after two days of sitting on that rock, they all added up, just as they always did.
And Pan was in a very foul mood. He had snagged his still healing leg on a jagged rock, splitting it open with gusto, blood gushing out the side. "Oh, to hell with it," he muttered, letting himself drop off the side of the Rock into the sea below.
Poppy was quick, so quick Pan assumed she was stalking him, and she was grabbing at his leg just seconds after he broke the surface of the water.
In the water, mermaids weren't as terrible looking as they were on land, but still, not something one would want to stare at too long. Poppy inspected his leg and then waved her arm about, looking towards a group of seaweed at the bottom of Neverland's crystal clear seas.
Pan nodded, inhaling a mouthful of saltwater, refusing to let it scare his body into thinking it was drowning. As long as he focused, he could breath and talk underwater.
Several mermaids began their swim towards him, the smell of a god's blood more tantalizing than a soul's or a fairy's. Though he'd been assured by Poppy that his blood was absolutely disgusting and she would never let any of her sisters feast on him and get food poisoning.
Which was... comforting, in the smallest way possible.
"How was your visit to Earth, Pan?" A mermaid asked, circling around him, as Poppy tied a bunch of seaweed around his leg, the healing effects working their magic quickly.
"Same as usual, how was yours?" He said, the water gurgling in and out of his lungs, burning his chest.
"Quite lovely," she answered, looking Pan up and down. While Poppy was around, none would dare try to attack him. She was their de facto leader. "I caught two mortals unawares and gobbled them up before they even knew what was going on."
"I did much better, Pan," another piped up, her voice carrying a melodic tune to it. A siren, one of the deep-water mermaids that followed Hook's ships. They were especially vicious. "I caught mine on their way home from a long ocean voyage." She giggled, "they never did get there. Of course, I made their deaths slow and painful, which I know you like, Pan."
"I heard you," Poppy said quietly, circling around him, pushing the mermaids back. "On Earth as you attacked that man. I was just near the docks. Perhaps you belong with us in the sea and not those... good things up top."
"Thanks for the offer." Pan said, already pushing back up to the surface. "If I didn't think you'd all try to eat me."
The other mermaids grinned their devilish grins, looking at each other in amusement. Poppy made a face, then offered a small wave with her webbed hand. Pan nodded to her, if only for the fact that she had helped heal him and they harbored a type of rocky friendship you would expect among two blood-thirsty individuals.
Then, he pushed once more and broke out of the water, gagging and coughing, the saltwater making his nose run like a goddamned mortal. This kind of human shit didn't happen when he was on Earth.
It seemed as if Neverland wanted him to experience things he'd never had to worry about when he was a god.
Now, he was a god that could choke on water.
Looking around, Pan spotted what he really wanted. What his shaking limbs and feverish mind craved and needed.
More specifically, her tears.
Gripping the small fairy's wings between his fingers, Pan took a deep breath and plunged it into the small river that separated Hangman's Cliff from the rest of the island. He waited, then pulled the fairy out, but she was only coughing and sputtering. He pushed her tiny head back into the water and waited for the struggling to stop.
Of course, he steered away from actually killing the fairies, but sometimes for the hardened fairies, he had to result to more extreme methods to get his tears to the quality he preferred.
He snatched the fairy out of the water, and laid her on the grass, the small body lifeless and cold. He wiped the tear away gently and immediately placed it in his mouth before reviving the fairy with a few good natured finger pumps on her small chest.
Body wavering in the air, Pan flew to the top of the Fairy Tree, turning his head away from the stars, eager to sleep. He had just one thing on his mind when he fell asleep.