Jack woke up with a groan.
His first fuzzy thought was why was he lying on the floor? Even if he had simply passed out somewhere, the servants would have moved him to his own bed.
The next thing to register were the odd sounds coming from far away. Strange echoes and distant whistling of the wind in narrow spaces. Blearily, he pushed himself upright, wincing a little at the rough gravel that bit into his palms as he did so. The slight sting was enough to wake him up further, and he managed to crack his eyes open.
The darkness bearing down on him stole the breath from a startled gasp.
The place he was in, it wasn’t quite a cave and not quite a room, was spacious, but oppressive in a way that had to do with more than the rough, windowless stone walls. A few smoking torches flickered in their mounts on the walls, but it did little to dispel the gloom. Darkness clung to everything like a living thing, and occasionally shadows moved in the far corners without anything visible to cast them. And from somewhere out of sight came the faint sound of things moving, more slithering than walking.
The prince made an instinctive motion to grasp at his staff for security, only to come up empty. Panicked, he looked around, groping half-blindly the ground around him, but it was no use. The staff was simply gone.
“Oh dear. Have you lost something, perhaps?”
Jack whirled around at the unexpected voice, and there, in the small circle of half-light cast by a guttering flame, stood a man. His grey skin stood out as a patch of twilight against the dark, the trailing end of his black robe melting into the shadows near the floor.
The man didn’t look all too scary to be honest. The way he carried himself and even the little, arrogant half smile mostly reminded the prince of the courtiers in his father’s palace. But still something about him set his mind on edge. There was something about his eyes, the way they glowed even in the dim light, taking everything, revealing nothing. And the way they were focused sharply on Jack.
“Who… are you?” he asked tentatively.
The man blinked, appearing surprised, then he chuffed a small laugh, bringing one hand up to tap a long finger on his forehead, like he was gently scolding himself for some oversight.
“Ah, yes, pardon me.” he stepped forward and smiled in what might have been amicable manner, but still seemed to be all fangs to Jack.
“I’d forgotten we haven’t been properly introduced, though you’ve probably heard of me. You are of course Jack Frost, prince of the Lunar kingdom.” here the stranger dipped into a graceful bow, that still somehow seemed mocking to the frost spirit. “And my name… is Pitch Black.”
Jack couldn’t help the catch in his breathing, anymore than the instinctive backwards step. “The Nightmare King?”
The dark creature smiled again, but this time he didn’t even try to put a mask of friendliness on it. “The one and only.”
Jack shivered slightly. Pitch Black was a name that was only ever spoken in a frightened whisper even behind closed doors. The demon who lived off fear. The shadowed flash in a dark corner, and the nightmares that came from it.
But Jack had been a whole lot younger, when his father had taught him one important lesson:
Nightmares only have power as long as you are afraid of them.
So the frost spirit drew himself up from his half-crouch, facing Pitch directly, and assumed his best ‘arrogant royalty’-face. He kept his sight trained between those silver-yellow eyes, even as they flashed dangerously at his sudden display of bravado. Another thing his father had taught him: If you are nervous about meeting someone’s eye, but can’t afford to look weak, stare them between the eyes, and they’ll think you’re looking them in the eye.
“Fine, since we now know each other, you mind telling me why am I here? And while we’re at it, where’s my staff?”
The shadow king’s lips pressed together unhappily, but he seemed to shake the brief disappointment off quickly. “For now, you only need to know that you’re here, because I wanted you here. As for that little twig of yours… Well, let’s just say it and the Sandman were the last pieces I needed for a certain… pet project of mine.”
Jack’s eyes snapped wide open. “Sandy?”
Pitch started slightly, before his smile returned, and now he looked more like a wolf that had gotten the scent of blood than ever.
“Oh my. Don’t tell me you forgot him so soon?”
He waved a hand, and on one side the shadows parted. The prince blinked at the sudden golden glow, which was enough to make his eyes water after the darkness of the dungeon. When his vision finally cleared, he gasped in very real horror for the first time.
The Sandman was sitting on the floor, struggling feebly and looking a little worse for the wear. Tendrils of what appeared to be black sand were wrapped tightly around his rounded form, effectively trapping his limbs and even the golden sand he created in an inky web.
The dream guardian looked up as Jack rushed forward and renewed his struggles, but before the prince could reach the other, two huge, black creatures rushed out of the shadows and drove him back with snapping teeth and flailing hooves. Jack stumbled before regaining his balance, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of his friend past the guarding nightmares. Sandy tried to form symbols of his sand, but each attempt was snuffed out by the black sand all around him. Finally he settled to just shaking his head vigorously with a grim look on his face. “Sandy, c’mon. I can’t just leave…”
With a pleased hum, Pitch snapped his fingers and the darkness closed over both the Sandman and his guards again. Jack rushed forward, but his hands met with nothing but a solid wall. Furious, he rounded on the Nightmare King.
“What are you doing? What do you want from us?” he demanded.
Pitch sighed theatrically, as if the answer should’ve been obvious. “Jack, I am the lord of fear, and the creator of nightmares. I require the solace of the shadows, and the dark of the night.”
He stalked closer to the winter spirit, finger raised like he was giving a lecture. “The Sandman, with his happy little dreams is my natural antithesis. The light of day makes people forget their nightly terrors, but not the flimsy, hopeful fantasies he brings. Sunshine makes my powers melt away like mist. But all this shall change.”
“What?” Jack was so puzzled by this declaration that he didn’t realize how close the dark creature had gotten, before his chin was suddenly grasped by thin, but strong fingers, and his face was turned up until he was staring straight in the eyes of fear itself.
“Tonight, the sun sets, and tomorrow it shall rise. But the dawn shall never again bring hope to either the mortals or the immortals of the world.”
And with that, he was gone, simply melted into the shadows. For the first time in his immortal life, Jack Frost felt what the mortals referred to as the cold chill of dread run through him.
Bunnymund trudged through the snow, stopping to rub his paws together to keep the blood flowing. Ice was forming between his toes and his cold-stiffened muscles ached with the strain of running through the deep snow banks.
"I really thought I was done with all this for one season." he muttered bitterly as he pulled a jagged piece of ice from his paw, grimacing slightly when a few strands of gray fur came off with it.
The pooka rubbed at his arms vigorously, but the action did nothing to quell the cold ache in the pit of his stomach. No matter how much he might hope, this was something different than an ordinary cold spell. His every sense was telling him that this was unnatural kind of cold. Some desperate part of him wanted to believe this was just a prank of Jack's, but the frost prince had never managed anything of this scale. And moreover, Jack was fond of all the little creatures of the forest, almost as much as Bunnymund himself. He wouldn't freeze them all to death just for fun.
And neither Jack nor Sandy were anywhere to be found, though he’d been searching for what seemed like hours.
Bunnymund shook his head to chase away that thought before it could take root, and crouched down to take off again, when a noise caught his attention. A rustle, or maybe a crunch of snow beneath a careless step. Bunnymund's shoulders tensed, and his paw slowly moved closer to his body, into position to make a grab for his boomerang. Another rustle. Large ears twitched just slightly, trying to pinpoint the noise without alerting its maker that the pooka knew about them.
Someone... no, several someones. Circling... inching closer... Behind!
Bunnymund spun around, boomerang in hand and a snarl on his face, when a booming voice halted him:
"Ho, Aster! Wait!"
The furry forest dweller's paw flexed instinctively on his weapon as a huge figure pushed its way through the undergrowth into view, but his shoulders slumped in relief as his mind, belatedly, put a name and a face to the voice.
Other beings moved into the clearing in the wake of their leader. Yetis plowed deep furrows into the snow, while the small elves skittered easily along the surface, only to occasionally tumble into the grooves left by the large, furry creatures. Faint buzzing from above drew the pooka's attention, and he looked up to see a flock of small, brightly colored faeries hovering overhead. One of the faeries came forward, and in a brief flash of light, in the place of a tiny bird-like being, faerie queen Toothiana herself hovered, surrounded by her feathered band. Bunnymund nodded his greeting to the lady, before turning back to the large, coarsely furred man.
The former bandit spread his arms in a gesture that was probably meant to encompass the whole forest, a smile splitting through his beard.
"Hello, Bunny. A nice weather for the time of year we're having, yes?" the giant of a man chuckled at his own joke.
The pooka snorted. "Yeah. Peachy."
Right on cue, a shiver traveled through his lean body, and his damp fur tried in vain to fluff up to keep him warm. Toothiana moved closer with a worried frown and gasped as she laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Bunny! You're soaked to the bone!"
"'M fine." Bunnymund muttered stubbornly, but he couldn't help a grateful sigh as one of the yetis came forward and threw a woolen cloak over his shoulders.
Toothiana pursed her lips sternly, but her eyes were warm. "I'm sure you are, you bull-headed bucktooth."
North watched the exchange between his friends with amusement, but then his eyes darted about and he sobered.
"Bunny, you're alone? Where is Jack?"
"Yes! Where is he? Have you seen him?" Tooth and her faeries crowded close, some bolder ones even tugging on the pooka's ears.
Bunnymund's shoulders stiffened, suddenly uncomfortable with the attention.
"What makes you think I'd know where the bloody show pony is?"
North crossed his massive arms and narrowed his eyes at the pooka, but the blue eyes beneath his bushy brows twinkled.
"Bunny, a leshy is no less aware of the going ons of his forest than a pooka. All the animals were abuzz about the ice prince being seen flying through the woods. And he always comes to see you first when he visits."
The grey furred forest spirit looked to the side, pulling the cloak closer with a huff.
"Okay, fine, so I met Jack earlier."
North and Tooth exchanged a glance, not that Bunnymund noticed, because he was resolutely not looking at his friends.
"I heard that Sandy was around, so I took Jack to meet him. But then I... well, I turned my back for one minute, and they were both gone. And the next thing I know it's the bloody new ice age!"
The white bearded man and the faerie looked at one another again, but this time there was no humor in their eyes.
"And this weather," North started, weighing each word carefully, "you're sure it's not Jack's doing?"
Bunnymund shook his head vehemently. "No way, mate. The Frostbite's all about fun, but he knows where fun ends. He wouldn't freeze the whole forest just for a joke."
The leshy stroked his beard for a moment, appearing deep in thought. Then he turned back to the pooka, his face very serious.
"You say that Jack was with Sandy when you left them, and when you returned they were both gone, yes?"
Unnerved by the other's sudden grave manner, Bunnymund only nodded. The large man's brows furrowed.
"Bunny, this is important. You must take us where you last saw them."
Tooth hovered, looking uncertain. "North-"
The white bearded man held up a hand, effectively silencing the fae queen.
"There is a possibility I don't wish to speak. Not until we know one way or the other."
Swallowing down a heavy lump that seemed to try and lodge itself in his throat, Bunnymund turned to lead their mottled troupe back to the glade where he had met with the prince and the Sandman.