Lara stared, incredulous at the nearly six foot tall rabbit currently standing in the entrance to the coffee shop. There was matted blood all over the fur on her chin, and Lara could see she was missing one of her front teeth. There was something perched on her shoulder, but in the shadows Lara couldn't identify what it was.
"You escaped from the North Pole?" was all she could think to say.
"I was never at the North Pole," Eostre replied. "And if you know that much about the Redcoats' plan, then I need to know--are you friends or foes?" The thing on the rabbit's shoulder moved, and it seemed to Lara that it was tensing up, as if getting ready to pounce.
"Friend," Lara said. "I think."
"You think," Eostre said, her voice laced with caution, her pink eyes roving over the group. "I tracked the Redcoats, and their trail stops here. I assume that tree behind you is an axis mundi."
"I'm not much of a botanist, but I was thinking it was an ash," Geo replied, trying to helpful. Lara was shocked at how calm he sounded.
"An axis mundi isn't a type of tree, it's the tree from which all types find their source," Eostre explained disdainfully. "And we aren't friends yet, so enough of this chit-chat."
Lara drew herself up, and taking a deep breath said, "I'm guessing by the Redcoats you mean the Leprechauns. We're no friend of theirs, I can tell you that much. Our friend is with them, and I believe his life is in danger. We were just about to enter the Tree and try following them."
"So one of you is a Pathfinder," Eostre said.
"I don't know what you mean," Lara replied.
"Not a Pathfinder and yet ready to brave traveling the Tree," Eostre said, her eyebrows raised appraisingly. "Brave or stupid."
"I'd like to think both," Lara said with a smile.
Eostre smiled back. "You have something about you I trust," she said, indicating Lara. "It seems we will walk two paths together, you and I. One to find the Redcoats, and the other to see if we will be friends in the truest sense of the word."
"Does it strike anyone else as utterly bizarre that we're talking to the Easter bunny?" Ripper asked suddenly. There was an awkward silence.
"Are you a Pathfinder?" Lara asked, breaking the silence. Once again everything was happening so suddenly that she felt she needed to ask a least one question of this creature who she'd assumed was trapped at the North Pole up until a few moments ago.
"No," Eostre replied. "But I can sense where the Redcoats are, or at the very least, where my husband is."
"Your husband? I suppose that would be...who? Peter Rabbit?" Ripper asked, trying to keep from laughing. Courtney punched him in the shoulder.
"Dieter," Eostre corrected. "They kidnapped him and took him along to the Pole. I was kept hostage in a warehouse downtown."
"What did they want with your husband?" Lara asked.
"They want to frame him for the attack on the elves," Eostre said. "They intend on wiping out Santa's elves, killing Dieter, and leaving his corpse as a testament to the attack."
"What can they possibly gain from doing that?" Lara asked. "Why wouldn't they take your body to the Pole to frame the elves' for your kidnapping?"
"I'm insurance," Eostre said. "They kept me in the event something went wrong. They could hold the powers of the world ransom with the northern hemisphere in perpetual winter. If the attack succeeded, the Redcoats guarding me would have killed me, brought my body to the Pole and that would have been the end of it all. But I escaped, killed the guards, and followed the Redcoats' trail here."
"Then I guess there's no time to lose," Lara said. "I suppose you should lead the way."
Eostre nodded and walked across the shop to the ladder. "The Tree is new," she commented.
"A little over a month old," Lara replied. And then it suddenly occurred to her. "Can the Tree be harmed?"
Eostre looked back at her. The thing on her shoulder had shifted into the shadows again. "Of course it can. That's why a guardian is always assigned to it. Are you the guardian?"
"I think I'm kind of like one of the Fates," Lara replied. "But I'm not totally sure."
"The Fates," Eostre said. "Are they here?"
"They're out at a Dixie Chicks concert...they said they'd be back by now."
"Typical of the Fates," Eostre said. "Not terribly reliable. Makes people wonder why bad things happen and all that. So who is the guardian, if you're not?"
"I think my boss is," Lara replied. "So the tree can be damaged?"
"Absolutely," Eostre said.
"And what happens to us if it gets hacked down while we're still inside?"
"We would perish for certain," Eostre said.
"Then one of us has to stay back," Lara said. Eostre inclined her head quizzically. "There was an attempt to harm the tree just recently. I'm worried it will happen again. Plus, if we're gone too long and there's no one to pay the rent...the shop will likely be repossessed...and there's no telling what would happen to the tree."
"You need money?" Eostre asked.
"How much money?"
"Andrew said it was $3600."
Eostre looked down at the thing on her shoulder, and turned her shoulder toward the light. Lara gasped. Someone swore again.
The creature reminded her of an armadillo, with the series of ivory colored plates all along it's round body, but it was nearly spherical, aside from a bloody bony fin jutting from the top of it's back.
"Pachik?" Eostre said gently. And at her voice, just like an armadillo, it stretched out it's body. Lara could see better that what she had thought were bony plates were teeth. Dark eyes looked at her from underneath a ridge of incisors. It opened a ridiculously large mouth, which was filled sharklike, row upon row, with human teeth. Lara gaped.
"A tooth fairy," Eostre explained.
"That's the fucking tooth fairy?" Ripper exclaimed. "It looks like a cheeseball that got rolled through someone's dentures." This time Courtney kneed him in the thigh, giving him a charley horse. He dropped into the chair behind him, holding his leg and wincing.
"Pachik came to collect my tooth when I broke it off, and I asked him to do me a favor instead of leaving me money. I got him to rip through my restraints. Pachik," Eostre said turning her head toward the tooth fairy again, "I need you to do my another favor, for which I will repay you. I need you to take money to the place this girl sends you, in the amount she writes down for you."
Pachik snorted and leaped down from Eostre's shoulder onto the coffee bar. It skittered across the counter, it's little claws clicking on the hard suface. Lara jumped as it got close to her.
"Don't be afraid," Eostre said. "Just tell him where to take the money, and how much to take."
Lara spoke the address and amount to Pachik, who immediately rolled into a ball again, and launched himself off the counter to roll across the floor to the door. By the time he'd reached the door he was rolling too fast to be seen, and simply slipped through the door's surface and was gone.
"So that's what the tooth fairy looks like," Sunny said.
"A tooth fairy," Eostre said. "There are many. But yes, not quite what your parents' speak of. Just imagine if children knew the truth? Who would ever wish to give up a tooth to invite one of those into your home? But they're mainly peaceful creatures. With access to huge caches of change."
"He's going to pay $3600 in change?"
Eostre nodded and laughed. "Beggars can never be choosers child."
"I'm Lara," Lara said, extending her hand.
Eostre shook it. "It's time to go now Lara. Are you ready?"
"No," Lara said. "But I'm not sure I ever will be."
"You said someone needed to stay...to guard the Tree," Geo said in his halting, slow manner of speaking. Lara wondered how anyone would stay awake through a lecture on Math by this man.
"Yes," she said.
"Mikey and I will stay," Geo said. "We will take turns guarding the Tree."
"What?" Mikey exclaimed. "I'm going along!"
"No way," Blackout said softly. "You're staying here. We don't need your disappearance attracting more attention to the Tree."
Mikey stared at Blackout in defiance, then mumbled a "fine" and turned away. Blackout shook his head and looked up at Lara, who was handing her keys to the shop to Geo.
"I think it's time we got going," Blackout said.
"Yes, I think so," she replied, smiling at him. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, and Lara giggled a little. If his eyebrows could have crawled off the top of his head, Lara was sure they would have.
"Off to the North Pole!" Ripper shouted dramatically.
"Not just yet," Eostre said. "First, we have a stop to make...at Grandmother's house."
And with that, they ascended into the tree, leaving the shop in darkness.