The king of nightmares sat on his throne, idly tracing invisible lines on the armrest. He really should’ve been preparing for the biggest even of his dark existence, but he found himself in the strange state of anxiety, where one feels the need to do many things at once, but can’t seem to get started on anything. His thoughts chased each other around in his head, but they seemed to always return to that one specific point:
“I hold the world in my grasp, and yet this… child distracts me.” he muttered to himself with a small, self-depreciative chuckle.
He cast his mind backwards to when he’d first spotted the bright young spirit. He’d been even younger back then. It had been mid-winter, the princeling’s favored playtime, and he had been making the most of it. Pitch had watched with nothing more than a cursory interest, until something had happened to momentarily upset the little frost child. There had been a flash, a blast of cold that made even the keeper of fear flinch, and then… He had looked up and been left speechless.
A huge tree had turned into an ice sculpture. Every leaf, every branch was encased in a thick, glass-like layer. The little prince had hovered in midair, staring in amazement at what he had done. He had reached out to touch one bough, the surprise almost turning into a smile. But at the lightest brush of curious fingers, the whole branch had simply snapped off the tree and fallen down with a sound like breaking glass. The whole tree had shuddered briefly before falling apart in a bright shower of shattered ice and a rumble of great chunks that came down like an avalanche.
Oh, how delicious had the boy’s horror been as he realized, most likely for the first time, just how much destruction he could cause, with but a single careless swing of his staff.
Apparently, it was a lesson well learned, for the little spirit had been more careful from then on. But Pitch remembered... Oh, he remembered. And as he checked on the boy at intervals, and saw him grow, both in body and in power, he started imagining. What could one do with such power at their fingertips, if one was not afraid to use it?
He hadn’t outright lied to Jack when he’d said that he’d wanted the winter sprite under his power, but it honestly hadn’t been a part of the original plan. But when he’d gone with his nightmares to capture the Sandman, and found the slim pale youth he had so often watched from afar in the same place…
Well, one could hardly fault a man for grasping an opportunity with both hands when it presented itself, could they?
Then, down in the dungeons… There had been something almost viscerally exciting about seeing the boy sprawled on the ground, the contrast of his pale, soft features and the hard stone made the flickering shadows look like they had been caressing his skin. And then, facing off fear personified, unarmed and in a strange place and he’d still been more worried of a stranger he’d met only some hours previous than his own safety.
Such purity fascinated him.
“What am I to do with you, Jack Frost?” Pitch murmured under his breath.
Oh, he knew what he wanted to do, alright.
He pictured in his mind the ice-blue eyes sparking up at him defiantly, and his tactile memory immediately summoned up feel of a pulse fluttering beneath the impossibly soft, white skin as he grasped the prince’s chin.
But no, he could not simply keep the boy. He knew how beautiful things kept locked away tended to lose their luster.
A smile crept over the Nightmare King’s face, and he nodded to himself.
He would have to woo the prince. Tempt him. And as he slowly won him over, the snow spirit would never even know of the darkness growing in his heart until he had already learned to cherish it. To crave the touch of silken shadows and the hush of eternal night.
North looked around as he emerged into the small clearing.
“Is this it?”
“Yeah, we’re here, mate.” Bunnymund replied tightly. Looking at the snow-covered land, it seemed like it had been years since the three of them had sat in this place, teasing and laughing.
“And how did you get separated from Jack and Sandy?”
The pooka froze in place.
“Errr…” His eyes darted towards the edge of the cliff. Toothiana flew over and peered down, then turned back to the furry guardian, and oh darn, those were definitely gears clicking away in her head, putting two and two together…
“Bunny, you didn’t actually-“ the faerie queen started.
“It was a stupid dare, alright?” Bunnymund exclaimed, throwing his hands up. Technically, it wasn’t exactly a lie. “And… and like I said, by the time I got back up here, they were gone. I went out looking for them, but soon after it started snowing, and then it just kept coming.”
They both turned to North, who had been standing quietly, stroking his beard thoughtfully. The bandit turned a guardian spirit looked at the ground, his brows furrowing.
“Bunny, when you jumped, Jack and Sandy were near the edge, yes?”
The pooka frowned, trying to think back. “I think so, mate. I’m pretty sure I heard Jack calling out for me.”
The leshy didn’t answer, instead he just walked over to the cliff, and started digging through the snow. He stopped when he uncovered the first blades of frozen grass, then scooped up a handful of snow from the bottom of the hole and started carefully shifting through it. Then he muttered something in the northern dialect that was his native tongue.
“North?” Toothiana hovered closer, trying to see what he had found.
“Look here.” the large man held out the handful of snow.
Bunnymund and Toothiana squinted at the powdery ice crystals. At first glance it was nothing but ordinary snow, but at a closer look there appeared to be something black mixed in to it. Almost like soot, but grainier, with a dark iridescent gleam to it when the light hit it just right. Almost like…
“Sand?” Bunnymund muttered, confused.
“Da. Like Sandy’s, only corrupted.”
The other gathered spirits looked sharply at the forest guardian, and saw that his usually twinkling eyes were chillingly serious.
“I knew he was gathering his power, but that he really managed this…”
Toothiana frowned. “Wait, who are you talking about?”
North took a deep breath, as if preparing to shoulder a great weight, and shook the snow off his hands. “Pitch Black.”
The yetis gave a series of startled rumbles, and the faeries twittered amongst themselves in alarm, but the two guardians stood frozen in shock.
“But… he was banished centuries ago!” the faerie woman protested feebly.
“Weakened significantly, yes, but he cannot be destroyed that easily. Not while there’s fear in the world, and there always will be.” North explained.
“He has always resented Sandy, for Sandy’s abilities are most similar to his own, and yet the perfect opposite. And now…” North looked grimly down at the dark stain on the snow. “… it seems that he’s found a way to turn his enemy’s weapon against us.”
“But… why would he take Jack too?” Toothiana twisted her hands together. She had always been fond of the young spirit with his bright smile.
“I wish I knew. Maybe just for a hostage.” the ancient bandit glanced up at the steadily falling snow. “But I think there’s more to it.”
Bunnymund barely listened. His hackles stood up and his paws were clenched into fists at his sides.
“They were all around us.” he muttered. “They watched and waited.”
Toothiana turned to look at him, alarmed by the unusually soft tone from the usually loud and abrasive pooka. “Bunny?”
“And worse yet, I gave them just the distraction they needed. If I hadn’t made such a spectacle of myself, they never would’ve gotten the drop on us.”
Toothiana flew over to him, even her faeries gathering closer at the sound of the pooka’s miserable tone, patting his fur with tiny hands to try and console him.
“Oh, Bunny. It’s not your fault, you couldn’t have kno-“
“NO!” Bunnymund flailed, scattering the smaller faeries in every direction. “Don’t you see? That son of a mongrel dingo knew I was meeting Sandy, so he just needed to follow me, and I led him straight to him! And now he’s taken Jack too! I PLAYED RIGHT INTO HIS HANDS!”
“Aster!” North grasped his oldest friend by the shoulders and spoke more softly than one might think him capable.
“Is no one’s fault, you hear? No one but Pitch himself. He always uses trickery to get what he wants, and now, he has Jack and Sandy. So it’s best we do not spend time blaming ourselves, but figuring out how to get them back, yes?”
The tension in Bunnymund’s shoulders didn’t quite leave, but it eased, the fire in his eyes giving way to steel. “…Yeah. I can do that.”
The leshy slapped him on the back with a force that would have felled a lesser creature. “I know you can, Bunny.”
Then he turned to the rest of their group and started giving orders: “Let’s move out! If Pitch is keeping our friends prisoner, he will need a place for it. And if the feeling in my belly is right, he won’t have moved far from his old haunt!”
Bunnymund fell into step at North’s shoulder, one finger tracing the edge of his boomerang.
“Hang on, Frostbite. We’re coming.”
Jack wandered the corridors. After a long while of fruitless groping in the dark, he had finally managed to find an opening that allowed him to leave the gloomy dungeon he’d been left in. Not that the escape seemed to have done him any good. He grimaced slightly when something squelched unpleasantly under his foot. The rough, gravely ground bit into the soles of his feet, and it seemed that everywhere he turned, his clothes kept catching on something sharp but unseen. Even in places where there shouldn’t have been anything they could get tangled in.
When his sleeve caught something once more, he snapped and yanked at it violently. The sound of tearing cloth met his ears and he lost his balance and banged his shoulder painfully on the wall. The prince bit his lip to keep from crying out from sheer frustration. If only he had his staff! If only to make it easier for him to get around. Maybe then he’d have already found Sandy and they could’ve left this wretched place, before… Before what?
Jack remembered the smile on Pitch Black’s face as he’d said that things would change, and he couldn’t help a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t know what the Nightmare King was planning, but it couldn’t be anything good. And he was keeping the Sandman locked up somewhere…
Angrily, the frost sprite swiped at his eyes with the torn edge of his sleeve, and pushed away from the wall, heading further into the darkness. He didn’t have time for feeling sorry for himself, he had to find Sandy.
Coming to yet another fork in the tunnel, the pale spirit stopped and looked back and forth between the new passages. None of them looked all too inviting to him, reminding him far too much of gaping mouths that were just waiting for something young and soft to wander too close.
But before he had the time to make up his mind, he heard faint shuffling and grunting coming from the corridor behind him, and drawing closer. Picking a passage at random, he darted in and stumbled forward in the near-dark, until he reached a turn and flung himself around the corner, flattening himself to the wall. He held his breath for a long moment, straining his ears, but no sound came from the tunnel behind him. He let out his breath in a whoosh, and glanced up along the tunnel he had blindly blundered into. His breath caught as he realized he could see just the faintest outline of the tunnel opening ahead, the darkness beyond just slightly less impenetrable than in the tunnels.
He crept forward, trying to reign in the impulse to dash straight towards the faintest promise of light and possibly right into his captors. He peered carefully through the rough doorway, and the sight made his heart skip a beat. Instead of a new tunnel he had found what appeared to be a great hall, with rows after rows huge columns disappearing up into the shadows.
Almost quivering with relief, Jack stepped forward into the room. All spirits capable of flight felt at least some aversion to dark, narrow spaces, so the open air was a welcome change. Carefully, he circled the base of one massive pillar, trying to get some idea of just how huge the room really was, when a faint glimmer caught his eye.
Huge, ornate double doors were set into one wall, and between them shone a narrow strip of soft, golden light. With a jolt, the prince rushed forward and peered through the crack, but he could see nothing but more columns and shadows cast by a flickering light. He pressed his ear to the door, and when he couldn’t hear anything, he tried the handle. The door swung open soundlessly at the lightest touch, and he stepped in.
The second room appeared to be something like a dining hall, judging by the long table and the great fireplace set beside it. The fire burned merrily, and while Jack usually wasn’t bothered by cold, after the long crawl through the dungeons even the warmth of the fire was just as much a relief as the light it cast.
For a long moment, he stood by the fire, half hiding behind one of the pillars lining the walls, simply soaking up the light and the sense of comfort. Eventually, he turned to take a better look at his surroundings. The room was an eerie place even with the fire burning brightly. The carvings on the walls and even the furniture were all done with images of leering gargoyles and other horrific figures. Cobwebs covered the tapestries on the walls so thickly, that he hardly could tell what the weavings might have portrayed at some point.
As Jack wandered this odd gallery of all things dark and dreadful, he suddenly came across something that stood out sharply from its surroundings.
To the side there was a small table, piled high with jewels.
Confused, but also curious, the winter spirit stepped closer. On the table there were crystal goblets, filled with pearls. Bracelets and other items were stacked in piles around them, and chains of silver and gold spilled out of several open boxes and chests. Not any sort of overly delicate, feminine trinkets, but things a man of nobility might wear, and feel more dignified for it. And every object sported a very obvious wintery theme. Jack gingerly picked up a diadem from the pile, running one finger over the frost pattern etched into the silver and studded with tiny diamonds. Small crystal spikes lined the edges of the circlet, mimicking icicles. Jack carefully touched the sharp point of one, and suddenly thought of his own, plain circlet he had thrown away just in a jest…
Just to see what Bunny might say.
There was a painful catch in his throat. Was Bunny okay? Had he been captured like him and Sandy? No, that didn’t seem likely. Pitch Black hadn’t even mentioned him, and he had obviously taken a lot of pleasure from showing Sandy to Jack, tied up and helpless. Maybe then… Bunny had gotten away? And with how many spirits of the forest he knew, he’d eventually come looking for them and bring help?
A small spark that felt like something bright and hopeful started forming in the young spirit’s chest, but before he could get further into those warm thoughts, he caught movement from the corner of his eye. Panicked, he spun around, but instead of another nightmare or even Pitch himself, he met something else.
The… thing was vaguely human in shape, but seemed to be made more of trailing pieces of shadows than any actual matter. It moved about in a strange, gliding manner, as if dancing to some unheard tune.
Jack inched sideways, trying not to turn his back on the thing. But the shadow matched him step for step, so that the two ended up turning a slow circle around each other. Jack stopped, and the creature stopped as well. He tried to move the other way, but again, the shadow mirrored his every move. Getting annoyed, the frost spirit crossed his arms and huffed.
“You know, I already have a shadow, I don’t need another one.”
His new follower wiggled in place slightly, as if laughing in mime, and then raised its arms – or what could’ve been arms – and spun around. Then it stepped to the side and spun again, and again, the shadows flowing around it in some kind of a waltz for one.
Suddenly the shadow dashed towards Jack, who started in alarm, but the dark figure made no move to attack, instead spinning a full circle around him before stopping and laughing without a voice like before.
Jack was starting to feel like he was being made fun of. Fear taking back seat to annoyance, he stepped forward, and the shadow danced backwards away from him. The prince arched an eyebrow. Was this supposed to be a game? Well, he would show that he could play.
The shadow moved closer again, gliding from side to side, and Jack stood his ground, his jaw set stubbornly. But when a black hand reached out for him, he suddenly spun aside, doing a full turn and ending up behind the shadow, which spun around to face him, surprised. The frost spirit felt a small laugh bubble in his chest. He couldn’t help it, the dark figure had looked so dumbfounded, even though it didn’t even have a proper face, when Jack had suddenly changed the rules of the game on it.
After a moment of amazed stillness, the shadow seemed to laugh yet again and spun gracefully away. He could now see little, sparkling bits amidst all the black as the creature moved, like small diamonds. Or perhaps ice crystals.
The shadowy figure darted close again, just brushing against the side of Jack’s neck, under his ear. This time the prince retaliated by taking a mock swing at it, driving it back in turn. The shadow skipped a few steps away, then bent at the middle, like a dancer bowing to their partner, and whirled away. And this time, Jack moved to follow.
They continued like that for a while, the swirling strip of animate darkness and the pale slip of a boy in his torn and dirty clothes. At times they mirrored each other’s moves, trying to predict each other, and at other times they danced and dodged in a game of tag.
Jack felt… light. As light as if he still had his staff and was letting the wind carry him. He was a little surprised that his feet were still touching the floor. He even added a little jump into his next turn, but the air seemed to be cross with him and refused to pick him up. He giggled a little despite himself.
His playmate was suddenly just behind his shoulder, and he leaped away with a laugh. Feeling a sudden burst of energy, he threw his arms out and spun around, the room a blur in his eyes. The shadow was there right beside him, spinning with him, spinning all around him…
Out of breath, Jack came to a stop. Still dizzy he looked up and realized he was alone yet again. He looked around confused, wondering where the shadow had gone, when he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a full length mirror nearby and gasped.
He hardly recognized himself. He had been dressed in his tattered everyday clothes, but now he was wrapped from head to toe in black. The material of his clothes glided over his body like silk, decorated here and there with small sparkling gems, artistically placed to imitate swirls of frost. His tunic had a long hem that swirled about his bare feet with his every move, and a high collar that framed his face, but no sleeves. Instead, attached to the shoulders of the garment, was a sheer, billowing cape that was attached to bands on his arms. To top everything off, on his head rested a circlet made of dark metal, like tarnished silver, with crystal icicles curving down over his temples.
He looked nothing like himself. He had never seemed so… dark and imposing.
“Beautiful.” spoke a voice from the shadows.
Jack whirled around, and Pitch Black melted out of the shadows not a pace away, looking exceedingly
pleased with himself. The prince backed up several steps, casting about for something he could use either as a weapon or a shield.
“Don’t be afraid, Jack.” Pitch held up a hand, speaking low and softly as if shushing a skittish animal.
When no immediate attack came, Jack slowly got a hold of his panic, and pulled himself up to look the master of fear in the eye.
“There we go.” the Nightmare King smiled, pleased, as the young spirit turned defiant eyes on him. “How do you like my gifts?”
The frost spirit’s lip curled in a sneer and he barely glanced down at himself. Pitch of the other hand took his time looking the youth up and down.
“I knew that outfit would suit you… Does it not please you?”
Jack moved as if to wrap his arms around himself, but flinched like he’d touched something unclean when his hands met the shadowy silk.
“No.” he bit out.
“Ah, such a pity. It is your wedding attire, after all.”
Jack’s eyes shot wide open. “… What?”
The shadowy spirit stalked forward, his face nearly impassive save for a little hint of a smile, but his eyes were alight with a fierce glow. “I’ve found my true mate, my dear, and you know it.”
A cold, grey hand came up to run a finger along the shocked young spirit’s jaw as he leaned close. “Or, can you tell me something that could possibly go better together than cold and dark?”
Angrily, Jack swatted the hand away from his face. “I’m nothing like you. You’re a monster.”
Pitch stood up and laughed, full-throated and mocking. “My dear little shiver, all beings with power have the potential to be monsters. Most of them are just too afraid to admit it. But they cannot hide it from me, I am the keeper of fear after all.”
Then he turned back to the frost spirit, taking on an inquiring air. “Has it really never bothered you? How you have to always hold back? How some other spirits are always invited to spread their powers wherever they go, but you are always told to keep it down?” Pitch spread his arms, gesturing animatedly. “Haven’t you ever wanted to just… let go? To really see what you can do?”
Jack blinked and swallowed, all of a sudden devoid of any sneering replies. The shadowy man stepped forward and held out a hand for the boy, his face oh-so-understanding, and just a touch sad.
“I have a feeling we understand each other, you and I.”
The frost spirit drew a deep breath, and looked the taller creature in the eye. “You have feelings? I wouldn’t have guessed.”
The gentle look fell off Pitch’s face and was replaced with a snarl.
“You stubborn-“ he cut himself off, and turned around in a swirl of black robes.
“No matter. The Sandman will die tonight.” he said over his shoulder. He ignored Jack’s shocked gasp, even though the whiff of the boy’s sudden terror was so temptingly sweet to his senses.
“With the last of his light snuffed out, all the other creatures are powerless against my nightmares. They might be able to destroy one or two, but without the Sandman to fill the nights with all things saccharine and frivolous, there will be more every time a mortal closes his eyes.”
He shot a leer at the young spirit over his shoulder. “And in time, you will come to see things my way.”
Jack shivered with the torrent of powerless fury and disgust raging inside of him. To stand here and listen to Pitch talking about other people’s lives or happiness as if they were only incidental things. It was enough to turn his stomach. Sparks of cold snapped around his fingers, but without his staff the power roaring in his veins had no conduit, nothing to focus through.
“DAMN YOU!” he screamed, needing to vent his frustration some way.
Framed by the fireplace, Pitch turned around and looked at the frost prince flatly. “We are all of us damned, my queen.”