Bunnymund flattened himself to a wall, his ears straining to catch the faintest sounds. After a few tense heartbeats, he motioned to the rest of the group to follow, and dropped onto all fours to lope down the tunnel on silent paws. He tried not to think of how much their current mission reminded him of sticking his paw down a snake’s hole without knowing if it was occupied.
It had turned out that North’s belly had been correct, once again. As they had approached the site of Shadow Citadel, the place where Pitch had made his home during the days of his might, they had found more and more traces of the nightmare sand. The very forest had steadily grown gloomier and quieter as they approached the ancient stronghold.
Finally they had stood before the few jagged remains of ancient walls jutting at the sky like the broken teeth of some gigantic beast. None of them had been the slightest bit discouraged by the fortress’ decrepit state, however. The citadel’s main strength had never been the walls around it, but the miles and miles of tunnels dug below it. Any invader would never know before it was too late when he might stumble across a cavern that was wide enough for the guards to swarm the intruder, or which side tunnel might loop back and let the creatures sneak up on him from behind.
However, the structure of the fortress was a double-edged sword. There were simply so many tunnels that it was not possible for even Pitch Black and his nightmares to keep watch over them all at all times. But even so, their only chance of success was to get in without being noticed, which meant they had had to leave a good deal of their group behind. North’s yetis were simply too cumbersome to move stealthily in the narrow passages. Bunnymund felt the loss keenly, for few things were as reassuring in enemy territory as the bulk of a yeti or three at your back. Small number of Toothiana’s faeries had stubbornly refused to leave their queen’s side, but they were huddled nervously together, often quietly chirping to one another in worried tones.
The forest spirits were going in blindly, oftentimes literally, not knowing if they were getting any nearer to where Pitch was holding the two spirits, or if they were going to run into an entire army of nightmares at the next turn. They’d already had to double back on their own tracks twice after running into a dead end, and the pooka was just about ready to pull out his whiskers in frustration.
The grey furred spirit lifted his head, his whiskers spread to catch the faintest draft and nose twitching. He growled in frustration when the air carried no scent but the stench of dust and mold. There was also a faint whiff of something so long dead that it had gone past rot and just dried up and shriveled, but he was hardly moved by that. Old bones could lie where they were for all he cared. Right now, it was a much fresher scent that he dreaded the most. The scent of blood.
North was suddenly right at his shoulder, and he quickly ran the back of one paw across his nose to cover his momentary lapse of attention.
“Stinks like something foul in here.”
“Da, must mean we’re going deeper. And that mean we’re getting closer!” the bulky man clapped the pooka on a shoulder jovially. For once, Bunnymund wished he was just a little bit more prone to be infected by the other spirit’s optimism.
They crept further forward, until they came to a crossroad. The tunnel they had been following opened suddenly into a larger corridor, which continued somewhere beyond sight in both directions.
“Which way from here, mate?”
“The air on the left feels fresher.” offered Toothiana. “Most likely that direction goes to surface.”
“Or it might connect to other tunnels. Maybe we should…”
While the three guardian spirits were arguing and debating, the small faeries spread out a short distance down the hallway, to make sure they weren’t about to be overheard. But only a moment later one of them shot back to the group that was still half-hidden at the mouth of the tunnel. The little faerie grabbed one of Bunnymund’s whiskers, tugging insistently and chattering away urgently.
“Ow, ow! Oi, cut it out!” the pooka tried to swat at the pest, but Toothiana snagged her little follower away, cupping her in her hands protectively.
“What are you – Slow down, slow down, you found what?”
Instead of answering the little faerie darted a small distance down the hall, bobbing in place and urging the others to hurry. With a curious glance at one another, they moved to follow.
The small faerie led them to a door, which had faint blue-white light seeping through the cracks around it. Any sort of light in the lair of nightmares was strange in itself. North turned to look at his companions seriously and drew one of his swords. Toothiana and Bunnymund readied their own weapons, and the former bandit put his shoulder against the door, and pushed.
The huge door opened with a creak that made Bunnymund’s skin crawl. The light from beyond intensified, and they were momentarily left blinking, but once his vision cleared, Bunnymund felt a cold claw tugging at the pit of his stomach. To the side, Toothiana gasped softly and North swore under his breath in his native dialect.
The room was a very non-descript stonewalled cube, save for a small pedestal near the back. On the pedestal, entwined in a web of black dreamsand that pulsed and shifted like a nest of vipers, laid a wooden staff. The well-known shepherd’s hook shape instantly recognizable, even without the ice crystals and the waves of intense cold that the object gave off. The black webbing that held the staff spread out from the pedestal, disappearing in the cracks of the stonework.
“So, that’s how he did it. He added Jack’s magic into his own to make the storm and snow.” North mused half to himself.
Bunnymund didn’t hear. Seeing the item that personified his… personified Jack almost as much as his trademark troublemaker’s grin like this seemed almost like a sacrilege. Without thinking, he reached out to grasp the wood, but before he could touch it, the nightmare sand suddenly reared up like a snake preparing to strike, and swiped at his outstretched paw.
The pooka didn’t really feel anything more than the sand rushing over his fingers, only because fear, misery and despair don’t have any physical manifestation. But some deeper part of himself rose up in response to the intangible hurt. Some part that was green leaves, budding flowers and the easy, honest laugh of children. And his fingers closed around the tendril of black sand, and squeezed. For a moment the cloud of black enveloped him. He couldn’t see, but tears stung in his eyes. He couldn’t breathe, but his chest burned. And then there was a sound like shattering glass, and the sand slipped through his fingers, falling down like a hail of tiny, black granules that seemed to evaporate as soon as they touched the ground.
The battle was over in a matter of seconds, but at the end of it the pooka fell to his knees, gasping for breath. There were two pairs of hands on him in an instant, one large, warm and heavily calloused, the other small, delicate, but with unrelenting strength in them.
North held his grip for a moment, feeling the other’s breaths in and out, assuring himself that the silly bunny hadn’t done any harm to himself. Then he stood up and reached for the staff that still lay on the pedestal, now free of the black sand. He ran his fingers over the contours that felt foreign to his fingers, but were dearly associated with a trusted friend nonetheless. Then, without a word, he held the stick out to the spring guardian.
Bunnymund took the staff gently, reverently. Toothiana looked sadly on the pooka, then turned to North.
"We got the staff, and Jack's power is tied to it. Does this mean it will start thawing now?"
"No. Pitch has twined his power around Jack's. Only when we break that hold the world will return to normal."
Bunnymund cradled the staff in his paws, running a thumb over the gnarled surface.
Jack flinched, startled. He could’ve sworn he had just felt a soft touch. Or maybe heard someone calling his name?
He listened intently for a little moment, before shaking his head to chase away the lingering feeling. It wouldn’t help him any at this point.
Instead he focused on the view from the… well, you could probably call in a window, if you were being generous. It was a long shaft cut into the wall, narrow but tall. Allowing very little actual light through, but giving still some idea of what was happening outside. Even from where he was standing, at the innermost end of the shaft, he could feel the angry snap of the cold wind on his cheeks. So different from the gentle, playful wind that carried him on his trips outside the palace. He stared at the narrow strip of darkened sky he could see, listening to the howling wind.
“How do you like the storm?”
The question startled him out of his thoughts, and the prince whirled around, finding the Nightmare King standing not a pace away.
“I thought it was a rather nice touch, for all I had to pretty much wing it.” the dark spirit smiled in a manner that might have been charming on any other face.
“Of course, I never had your… artistry with this particular element, obviously.”
Jack felt he could’ve choked on all the syrup in that particular statement.
“Of course you don’t. It’s sorely lacking on the moans and wails department. That’s more of your thing, isn’t it?” the ice spirit bit out.
Pitch pretended to pout, but his eyes were dancing with mirth at the snappy reply. At the delicious game of defiance.
“Don’t judge me so harshly, my dear Jack. In the end I want so very little, only to be feared. So many others…” here, he seemingly absently glanced to the side, directing Jack’s gaze to a wall carving of a demon swinging a lash at a covering figure of a mortal woman. “…wouldn’t be satisfied with just that.”
Jack studied the gruesome scene that was portrayed on the wall for a moment, and then slowly, almost reluctantly, his eyes drifted to the spirit of fear standing in front of him. His face was smooth as carved marble in this light, the shadows gliding softly about him. Dropping his gaze, the prince crossed his arms, and turned pointedly away, staring out at the storm again.
Pitch only smirked and sauntered over to the long table in the room, picking up a dish made of some black stone and filled with fruit, and brought it over to the winter sprite.
“You should eat, my dear. It is getting late and you must be hungry.”
He picked up a handful of grapes and held them out. They were bigger than any the prince had ever seen, and shiny red-black in the low light of the fire. Jack couldn’t suppress the thought that in any other light they’d be red as blood.
“Try these, they are very sweet.”
Jack swallowed, and lifted his chin proudly. “No.”
“Just to please me?” Pitch leaned in, bringing the treat in the frost sprite’s sight even as he was avoiding eye contact at all costs.
“I do nothing for your pleasure.”
Pitch moved closer, stroking the back of a finger over a pale, cold cheek. His voice was all but a purr. “It pleases me just that we are alone, together. Just… the two of us.”
A shudder ran through Jack, and he jerked violently away. But as he did one of his flailing hands smacked into Pitch, slapping the dish and its contents from the dark spirit’s grip.
They both stared at the scattered shards of the broken bowl and the spilled fruit for a long moment, before the prince turned back to his captor, his face perfectly impassive. Slowly, Pitch returned his gaze back to the pale spirit, his own mouth set in a slightly displeased slant.
Suddenly Jack was smacked violently to the side. He wasn’t exactly sure if the Nightmare King had simply moved too fast for him to see, or if he’d had the shadows do it for him, but in the next moment the frost spirit found himself sitting on the floor slumped against the wall, his cheek stinging enough to make his eyes water. Pitch leaned over the prince, his eyes cold and hard.
“You would do well to be grateful for my kindness.”
The prince made to dodge out of the fear keeper’s shadow, but his chin was caught in a steely grip, and his vision was suddenly filled with the harsh visage of the Nightmare King.
“You won’t be leaving this place any time soon either way, but it is in my power to make your stay here very pleasant, or very uncomfortable, according to what I think you deserve.”
Faded gold eyes set into a stony-grey face held sparkling blue for a tense moment, before something new appeared in the prince’s eyes.
“If I behave, then, you will not hurt me? You’ll let me use my powers again?” Jack inquired, almost timidly.
Pitch eased his grip on the younger spirit’s face, but didn’t move back yet. “Give yourself to me, and no one will ever try and tell you ‘no’ again.”
Jack swallowed thickly, but his eyes stayed on the dark spirit intently. “If I choose to obey, then… what would I be to you?”
“You’ll be everything you could ever dream, Jack, as long as you do as I say.” Pitch flowed gracefully to his feet, and held a hand out to the prince, who hesitated before taking it and allowing the other to pull him on his feet.
Jack seemed nervous, dropping his gaze almost bashfully, but not moving to remove his hand from the dark spirit’s grip. “Everything I want, if I swear to stay with you and serve you?”
“As I have said.” the spirit of fear reassured, trying to curb his gleeful smile.
The frost spirit’s free hand fiddled with the trailing edge of his tunic, “If I really have no choice but to stay with you, then… Grant your-… your bride one wish?”
“One thing to prove that you mean what you say, and –“ Jack cut off, swallowed, and then, slowly, lifted a trembling hand and laid it on the Nightmare King’s chest.
“And then I’ll be yours for eternity.”
The Boogieman shivered at the contact, his hand coming up to grasp the one laid beside his unbeating heart, but learned suspicion still raised its ugly head. “Are you certain of this, Jack?”
Jack drew a deep breath, his shoulders tensing, before he answered, his voice suddenly very flat. “Maybe… it’s better to be feared than shunned or scolded at every turn like a naughty child.”
The Nightmare King studied the young spirit silently for a small eternity, trying to gauge his inner thoughts. Then, a slow smile spread over his face.
“In that case… Anything, my Jack.”
“Let me be the one to kill the Sandman.”
Pitch reared back, surprised. “What?”
“As a last favor to a friend!” Jack explained hurriedly. “I could freeze him, gently. He wouldn’t even notice. And when he’s one solid lump…”
The prince’s voice faltered, and he simply swung his free arm, as if striking an invisible object.
“One good hit would do.” he whispered hoarsely.
“Let me make sure he doesn’t have to needlessly suffer, just…”
Jack dropped his gaze, few snow white strands of hair just brushing the taller man’s chest as he bowed his head.
“Please.” His voice was impossibly small.
Pitch stared at the boy in silence for a long moment, before that slow, fanged smile returned.
“My beautiful little white fright, I could never deny you anything.” He dropped a light kiss on the frost spirit’s head.
“Do as you please. The Sandman shall die as gently as it is in your power to grant.”
He pulled the small pale hand away from his chest and dropped a kiss on it too.
“Now, wait here, my little shiver. I have some last preparations to do before tonight’s ceremony.”
Pitch’s footstep were as silent as shadows as always, but when the boom of the massive door closing announced the Shadow Lord’s departure, Jack lifted his head.
And then he smiled.