Everything was chaos.
Jack saw the scene around him in static snapshots. He saw Augus standing, nonchalant, a rapier hanging loose in his right hand, behind a huge number of Nightmares. Most the Nightmares were being held in check by a number of waterhorses in both human and horse form, as well as Gwyn, who was making the golden light and herding the Nightmares back. He heard the screams of fae and children both, the sounds of the wounded, the afraid. He saw a huge dome of strange, green energy around the whole school and adult humans waiting beyond it, unable to get through the magic. He saw North coaxing a child through the green magic to panicked parents, and other children standing near him, crying and distressed. He saw Gwyn's soldiers fighting malicious Unseelie fae with swords and in hand to hand combat. He saw bodies on the ground. Blood.
One of Gwyn's soldiers ran up to them, and Jack realised belatedly that Pitch had a hand on Jack's lower back, as if he didn't want to stop being physically connected to him.
'The Nain Rouge has children hostage inside the gymnasium, Sir. Bunnymund has managed to get a good lot of them free, but he's been wounded and evacuations have slowed down significantly. Get as much storm activity up as you can, Gwyn said. And then Pitch, you're to go help Gwyn directly, and Jack's on aerial surveillance or down with North, helping to evacuate the children.'
'The Nain Rouge?' Pitch said, eyes straying over to Augus.
'Gwyn will decide once the storms are made and he sees how they affect the Nightmares,' the soldier said. He nodded his head in acknowledgement, and ran past them to intercept a charging Unseelie fae.
Jack's hand clenched around his staff.
'Bunnymund...' he said, and Pitch rubbed his hand briefly up and down Jack's back.
'If I see him, and the wound is treatable, I'll heal him,' Pitch said. 'First we must make these storms.'
Jack and Pitch shared a glance, a brief moment of stillness, and then Jack shot up into the air and Pitch withdrew his heavy sword with a single, easy movement.
Pitch sent huge, powerful waves of golden light up into the air, and Jack seeded each one with snow and cold, thinking of huge snowstorms, of cumulonimbus, of clouds so fat and heavy with snow that they had to let go of it immediately.
Above them, the atmosphere thickened. Humidity grew and the barometric pressure altered around everyone. Air grew heavy with clouds that whipped themselves up too fast to be anything other than Jack's supernatural magic. Every single one glowed golden from within, and every single one started releasing the glittering pieces of snow before they were fully formed.
Jack flew up through the air, directing the clouds over the Nightmares with the wind he called to himself. He couldn't look at the Nightmares too closely. They reminded him too much of Mora. And when the first Nightmares started shrieking as the golden snow began to fall on them, Jack briefly closed his eyes.
They're not Mora. They're not Mora.
He ducked down through the cloud cover. Through the flurries of glowing snow, he saw Nightmares fleeing beneath it, loathing the golden light as completely as Mora had, finding it unbearable. Some of the waterhorses were driving the Nightmares back towards it. The fighting had slowed down, a few Unseelie fae who hadn't seen the snow before were distracted by it.
Augus Each Uisge had his rapier in a firm, expert grip and looked directly up at Jack, face grim. He didn't look like he'd known about the snow merged with the golden light. He didn't look happy.
Jack felt a pull somewhere behind his navel, a feeling like he needed to get down to Augus, that it was important he fly down and meet with him. Jack gasped and turned, fled back into the safety of the clouds where he couldn't make eye contact. He was up in the sky, a fair distance away, and he'd still felt Augus' compulsion. All of Pitch's warnings came back to him and he curled up briefly under cloud-cover where no one could see him. He gasped a breath into his lungs, tried to pull himself together. Why was Augus so obsessed with him? Did Pitch know something about him, that Jack didn't know? The Nain Rouge was the one who had done the most damage to him, and yet Augus seemed to want to target him personally.
He startled when one of the Nightmares flew up into the cumulus where he was hiding, screaming as the snow touched it, eyes wild and mouth open in a combination of terror and fury. And on the Nightmare's back, Augus Each Uisge sat, rapier at the ready, wearing calf-high boots, a button-up dark green shirt. His amused, cruel eyes sought Jack out.
Jack flew backwards automatically, fear turning him quiet and making him want to disappear. He couldn't get the Nightmare's awful shrieking out of ears, the Each Uisge was forcing it into an environment that might kill it. He wanted to feel sorry for the Nightmare, but he thought he could use its vulnerability to his advantage. He flew behind a barrier of clouds, calling a wind up, making sure it raced past his ears, blocking out sound before it could reach him. He was sure Augus was using his compulsion, but if the wind didn't let the words reach his ears and he wasn't making eye contact, maybe he'd be okay.
He created a funnel of the golden snow, and then sent it directly at the Nightmare, sensing its presence in the clouds. Stealth wasn't something he often had to rely on, but he could use it well enough when he had to.
Jack poked his head through his protective cover of cloud quickly. He saw the Nightmare's head flung back, a terrible glowing wound in its flank. Augus hit the creature with the flat of his rapier, stared at Jack with a cold rage, but the Nightmare's wound was fatal. Gold spread tendrils all over it, and it dissolved into sand, Augus falling with it.
Jack didn't pause to see how Augus landed or what had happened. He was fae, a King, he wouldn't die from a fall like that. Instead, Jack shot around to the opposite side of the battle, as far away from Augus as he could get. He'd made the snow, there wasn't much more he could fit into the sky, and he was depleting his powers.
He skidded to a halt by North, who was standing with children by the edge of the dome, flanked by Gwyn's soldiers. North was trying his hardest to convince a child that he would be okay, that it was perfectly safe to move through the barrier of the dome. The child was having none of it.
'Jack,' North said in relief, when he saw him.
'Do you want some help?'
Jack realised with a frown that most of the children couldn't see him. It didn't surprise him, he wasn't like North and the others, who had good traction with the majority of children. He didn't have many followers, but the ones he did have were loyal.
There were about twenty children around North. Most were crying. Some out loud, some weakly, some with the exhaustion that came from having cried for hours and not having anything left except the occasional tremor and silent tears. There were a couple of children still attempting to be stoic. Jack tensed when he saw four of them just standing there, numb and unresponsive.
If I was a kid, taken hostage by the Nain Rouge, I'd probably feel the same way.
'I can help,' Jack said, with a brief smile. He looked over his shoulder, but there was no sign of Augus anywhere, and he couldn't feel that horrible compulsion in his body anymore.
It didn't matter if the kids recognised him or not, he didn't need to be seen in order to make sure they could find themselves again. He waved his staff and called a mound of snow to him. It sparkled and gleamed, drawing the attention of some of the children.
'Pretty, huh?' he said to them, and one child's eyes flickered over to his and made direct contact. He beamed at her.
A believer, awesome. This'll be a piece of cake. I can do this.
'This is a really special kind of snow,' Jack said, as he started to make snowballs, blowing on each of them and laying them in a growing pile at his feet. North watched him with a mix of gratitude and fatigue. 'It's awesome. Not only is it snow, which is already the greatest. But it's a snow filled with a magical light. And it's gonna make sure you guys get home safely. And you'd like that, yeah?'
The one child who was looking directly at him, nodded. She'd been wearing pigtails, but one of the hair ties had gone missing. Her uniform was rumpled. She looked tired.
'Yeah, me too. That's why I'm here. To help you guys out.'
He picked up several of the snowballs and took a deep breath. He grinned at the child, and then threw the snowball gently. It landed against the two hands she held fisted up at her neck and shattered, releasing a glow of light and fragments of snow. She opened her mouth in surprise, and then wonder. As the other children shrieked in fear at the snowball attack (and North rushed to reassure them), her mouth broke into a hesitant smile.
'That's it,' Jack said, nodding encouragingly. 'You're doing so great!'
He threw a few more of the snowballs even as North tried to tell the kids that they wouldn't hurt, they wouldn't do any harm. These kids are paranoid, and with good reason. He held onto his smile, held onto the snowballs. He could feel the golden light inside of them, a strange warmth that didn't melt the snow.
The kids were slow to respond. The snowballs were working, but these were kids who had been terrified for hours and hours, not kids who were just having a bad afternoon, or a bad morning. Shaking them free from trauma would take more than a few snowballs, and he hated that he knew that, that he couldn't help all of them individually and make everything okay again.
The child who he'd hit first, the little girl, she ran up to him and picked up some of the snowballs herself, and started throwing them at the kids nearby.
'It's good snow, you guys!' she shouted. 'It'll make you feel good!'
Jack started making more snowballs, blowing on each of them, unable to stop himself from smiling.
As the children started to feel more confidence, as they started to acknowledge the feelings of goodness growing inside of them, several broke out into hesitant, warm smiles. North took those ones right up to the edge of the magical dome and pointed through it, showing parents and police officers, firefighters and ambulances waiting nearby. A few of the children still hesitated, but some ran straight through, pelting like mad towards loved ones or the uniformed authority figures waiting to help.
Jack was throwing more of the snowballs when he felt a tug on his sweatshirt. He looked down and saw the girl smiling up at him. He knelt in front of her, so that they were on a level. She couldn't have been more than about eight.
'Hey, you feeling a bit better?' he said, and she nodded. She held two snowballs in her hands, and there were still signs of dried tears on her face.
'You're Jack Frost, aren't you?' she whispered, and he smiled wider. He couldn't help it. He was worried about Pitch, worried about Bunnymund, worried about the children, and yet he would never get over the power that children had to make him feel grounded.
'Sure am,' he nodded.
'You should take that snow to the kids still inside,' she whispered, as North continued to help shuffle kids through the magical barrier that was keeping the humans out.
'There are lots of kids still inside, huh?' Jack said and she frowned briefly.
'Not lots, but it's not safe.' She leaned in close, and Jack leaned in as well, so that she could whisper in his ear. 'There's a scary monster kid in there,' the girl. 'She hurt the Easter Bunny. And she ate a kid.'
She ate a kid. Jack's breath escaped him, he wasn't even able to hold onto a reassuring smile. When he drew back, the girl was looking at him sadly.
'Stacey,' the girl said, her voice hitching over the name.
'Stacey. Was she your friend?' Jack said, and the girl paused, then nodded. She looked soberly down at the snow she held in her hands.
'Some of the kids are too scared to leave, because they don't want to be eaten, and they don't want to make the scary monster kid mad. She has guns too. You should take the snow in to them, and maybe they'll run away. Because it'll make them feel good.'
'Did you tell Nor- I mean, Santa, about this?'
The girl shook her head, looking over at North and then looking down at the snowballs in her hand. She seemed to gain a margin of strength every time she reminded herself that they were there. She made eye contact with Jack, and Jack thought he understood. Santa was wonderful, and he brought toys, but he was still huge and intimidating, and these kids had been through enough intimidating to last them several lifetimes.
Jack made more of the snowballs automatically, because if his plan worked out, North was going to need them.
'What's your name?' Jack said, to the young girl.
'Patty,' she said. Jack nodded, found a smile for her.
'You should go through the dome, Patty,' he said. 'I know it looks scary, but it won't hurt you. It looks like it keeps people out, but it doesn't keep you in. And you've got people who are worried about you. You don't have to stay in here anymore.'
'You'll help the rest of the kids?' Patty said, and Jack nodded.
'That's why I'm here,' he said, 'It's the only reason I'm here. Okay? So will you go through that dome for me? Get out of here? The sooner you're out of here, the sooner I can bring you a snow day or come visit, and make sure everything's alright.'
He made his voice as light and reassuring as possible, but he felt rage deep inside of him. The Nain Rouge had eaten a child. It wasn't enough that she consumed every stupid power and soul around her, but she had to go and eat an innocent kid as well? He hated the Nain Rouge, he burned with it. It turned him brittle and caustic on the inside. It left him with a dark, murderous feeling that hadn't welled inside of him for a very long time. He'd encountered monsters before – human monsters – and he wasn't bound by human law. He wanted the Nain Rouge dead, and he wanted to be there when it happened.
He thought Patty would need more convincing to leave, but she turned around and started sprinting towards the dome, holding the snowballs in her hands like talismans. Jack felt a brief wash of relief when she made it through safely. And then he was surprised to see that none of the children were remaining, all had made it through. He continued to make snowballs, one after the other, blowing on each one.
'You have to stay out here,' Jack said to North, voice shaking with renewed anger as he thought of the Nain Rouge. 'I'm gonna get Pitch and maybe Gwyn, and we'll see if we can't heal Bunny and get the rest of the children out. I'm leaving you all of these, okay? They'll work even if I'm not the one throwing them.'
North nodded and Jack frowned.
'How bad is Bunnymund?'
North shook his head sadly.
'He was shot twice. His leg is very wounded. He's inside with some of Gwyn's soldiers. He'll be alright, but the children can't see him like that. They are scared enough of the Nain Rouge. And I think I am just too big and scary-looking to be convincing them to come out. Even if I am Santa.' North ran a hand over his face, tugged at his beard. He looked worn. There was a terrible weight behind the brightness of his eyes.
'You're just what they need,' Jack reassured him, 'Especially once you hit them with a few of these snowballs. If you run out of them, just rub the snow on their skin, or tell them to do it. The snow has Pitch's light in it, and the light makes you feel confident. It doesn't make them feel as good as the snowballs, but it might be just enough to get them to run through that stupid magical dome. Okay? There's going to be tons of the snow falling. We're not going to run out any time soon.'
On a whim, Jack threw one of the snowballs at North, and hit him in the side of the head. North's eyes widened, and then he laughed, surprised.
'You looked like you needed that,' Jack said, grinning, and then he shot off into the air, looking for Pitch.
Jack kept the wind close to him as he scouted for Pitch. He avoided panicked Nightmares that loathed the snow and were escaping the dome, he wheeled around fae that were fighting each other, and he made sure that the wind was there to scour away sound if he happened to see Augus.
He found Pitch destroying Nightmares. Gwyn was nearby, engaged in battle with an Unseelie fae who had cat ears and a three cat tails. In the distance, he could see Augus actively engaged in battle, standing with one hand formally behind his back and his rapier in front of him. He used it precisely, with a technique that married stillness with sudden bursts of exacting movement. After he'd run through two Seelie fae on the point of his sword, Jack decided he'd seen enough.
He didn't land properly, hovering next to Pitch.
'We have to go into the gymnasium,' Jack said. 'The Nain Rouge has killed a kid. There's no snow in there. We have to go make it, maybe keep the shadows back or something.'
Jack looked out at the fleeing Nightmares and felt a rush of impatience.
'Come on, we have to go.'
'What's happening?' Gwyn said, joining them. His sword was covered in blood, and splatters of it stood out in stark relief on his cream-coloured armour. The sweat in his hair was turning the white-blond curls to ringlets, and there was blood staining some of it pink-red. For the first time, Jack started to get a glimpse of a brutal warrior beneath the charm. Not just someone who trained on drills or enjoyed the Wild Hunt. Here was a fae who knew how to get his way on a battlefield. Gwyn brushed snow out of his hair, and then looked up at the golden clouds above them.
'How long is this going to fall for?' Gwyn said.
'Hours,' Jack said, absently. 'Look, can we go? Patty said the Nain Rouge had guns, but I'm pretty sure I can knock them out of commission now that she's not catching us by surprise. We have to get the rest of the kids out of there. Otherwise there's no point to all of this.'
'Speak for yourself,' Gwyn said, raising his eyebrows. 'I'm trying to repatriate the Seelie fae back to their rightful homes.'
'Then you don't have to come with us, do you?' Jack said, he directed pleading eyes at Pitch.
Pitch nodded and Jack flew towards the school, Pitch following behind him, slicing out waves of light whenever a Nightmare crossed their path. Heavy footfalls next to Pitch meant that Gwyn was following. Jack realised, as he approached the school, that he had no idea where to enter. He fell back, and Gwyn pushed forward, taking them immediately through a glass door that one of his soldiers was guarding.
Immediately inside the foyer, Jack saw Bunnymund lying on the floor, soldiers pressing wads from sheets likely taken from the nurse's office, to the shattered mess of his right hind-leg. Jack stopped and stared at the pool of blood beneath him, at how it matted his fur into thick, black clumps. Bunnymund's ears were limp, but his eyes were fever-bright. When Pitch ran directly over to him, he tensed.
'Did the bullets go through bone?' Pitch asked, and one of the soldiers nodded.
'A lot of shrapnel damage too.'
Jack saw Pitch's whole body tense, and then remembered how Pitch had needed to remove the bullet from his body before he could start healing it with the golden light. He had a sudden image of Pitch digging through ruined flesh, looking for shrapnel, and he blanched. He hoped that wouldn't mean that Pitch couldn't help.
'Bone is...complicated. And shrapnel...' Pitch trailed off. He looked at Bunnymund, who was staring at him with a weak wariness. 'I don't know if I can heal this properly.'
'Then go help the blasted children,' Bunnymund said, and Pitch grimaced, pulling back the sheets and looking at what Jack could only call wreckage. It was a nasty wound.
'We've removed some of the shrapnel,' one of the soldiers said. 'We had to stop, he was losing too much blood.'
'May I scan it?' Pitch said, enquiring with a gentle politeness. Bunnymund's eyes narrowed, and then his head rested back on the tiles as though he couldn't hold it up anymore.
'I don't think you could make it much worse. Bloody go for it.'
Pitch put his sword down and ran the golden light through Bunnymund's leg. It didn't seem to hurt him, but he stiffened all the same. Pitch looked concerned as he moved the light through his leg. Jack's skin itched, they had to get the children out of there. They must be terrified. He wanted to tell Pitch to hurry up. He was torn between wanting to see Bunnymund healed and wanting to get in there and help the children.
'I can heal some of this,' Pitch said finally, 'Will you let me?'
Bunnymund waved his paw in the air and then his whole body locked in on itself when Pitch thrust both of his hands into the wound. Jack's muscles tensed in sympathy. He would never get used to that. It was one of the most invasive healing techniques he'd ever seen. Bunnymund didn't make a sound, but the whites of his eyes were visible as the golden light rayed heavily out of his wounds.
Pitch worked quickly, and Jack could tell it was because the golden light was stronger than it had ever been. With his right hand, he plucked out pieces of shrapnel and dropped them onto the ground beside him. With his left, he kept producing a steady, intense mass of light. He moved from location to location, methodically moving down Bunnymund's leg. Gwyn was leaning over Pitch, watching in amazement.
'Can I learn to do this?' he said, and Pitch shook his head once, concentrating.
'No,' he said, curt.
Gwyn stepped back, realising how much effort Pitch was expending, and came to Jack's side instead.
'You said you could put the guns out of commission. How?'
'If I see them, I can shoot ice at them. Encase them, freeze them. Guns don't work so well when there's shards in of ice in the barrel. Might even backfire,' Jack said with a grim smile.
'If we can disable the guns, the Nain Rouge will be easier to deal with,' Gwyn said, and Pitch made a sound of dissent.
'Wait for me,' Pitch said, shifting his hand and wincing in sympathy when Bunnymund jerked hard as Pitch pulled out a stubborn piece of shrapnel.
'We should do this now,' Jack said to Gwyn.
'I agree,' Gwyn said, and Pitch made a sound of frustration.
'I don't want him going in there without me,' Pitch gritted out, staring at the wound in front of him.
'You should trust him,' Gwyn said reprovingly, and Jack looked at Gwyn in surprise. Pitch bared his teeth at the wound, but it was obvious that he intended the expression for Gwyn. But he was concentrating too hard, and looked reluctant to leave the wound half-healed. Jack was surprised to see how much of it he had healed already. Bunnymund was staring up at the ceiling in awe, no longer radiating so much pain from his bunched muscles.
'Join us when you're done,' Gwyn commanded, and walked off in the direction of the gymnasium.
Jack followed, though he looked over his shoulder at Pitch, bowed over Bunnymund's wound. He wished Pitch was by his side, but he needed to get into that gymnasium. He needed to get the children out. He needed to get at the Nain Rouge.
'I don't like to use my light in battle, because it is dangerous, unpredictable. However, I can give you a temporary barrier,' Gwyn said in his businesslike manner of conducting war. 'It won't last long, but while it's up, we will be protected from the bullets. She can't pass it. But it will only last a minute or so.'
'Okay, that's better than nothing,' Jack said, gripping his staff and scowling as they moved quietly through the empty school.
There was no way to sneak into the gym. On the count of three, Gwyn burst in through the main entrance and put up the barrier of light. Jack saw through it to the rifles and handguns and shot sharp bursts of ice towards each of them. The Nain Rouge dropped the one she was holding, it was completely encased in a block of ice. She pulled out another from beneath her skins, shot at them, but the bullets couldn't penetrate the barrier. Jack sent ice at that too. She tried to avoid the burst of frost lightning, but Jack's aim was true, and the lightning moved jaggedly in the direction he wanted it to, zapping the gun from her hands.
As soon as he'd shot ice at the guns he could see, he noticed the rest of his surroundings and quailed. Shadows clung thickly to the gymnasium walls, reaching all the way up to the roof. They were everywhere. Living shadows swirled in puddles underneath terrified children pressed back up against the wall, they pooled underneath the Nain Rouge herself, they waved lazy tendrils and tentacles up from the ground and the walls. In some of the shadowy corners they were a thick, clotted mass, lurking, saturating the room with fear.
Jack gasped, even Gwyn seemed shocked.
The barrier died, and Jack's fear skyrocketed. He wanted to be gone. He did not want to be this close to this many living shadows. He'd had no idea that the Nain Rouge had gotten so strong. The gymnasium was infested with them.
He took in the children. At least fifty. They were huddled together. About ten feet away from the main group of children, Jack saw a small body, the blood beneath it. Nausea slammed into him, and his knees felt weak.
Stacey, Jack remembered, thinking of Patty's face as she'd said it. He flew forwards, eyeing the shadows warily. When he was closer to the Nain Rouge, he held out his staff. Anger galvanised him, but the fear the living shadows inspired chipped away at it. He had to act now, before he lost his nerve.
'Let the children go,' he said. 'You don't want them, right?'
'Bitch, please,' the Nain Rouge said, a gleeful cast to her dead eyes. 'You think you know what I want? You couldn't find your way out of a cereal box. Although,' she looked down at the frozen rifle by her feet. 'That's a neat trick. Can't wait to do it myself when I suck you dry.'
Jack dodged as tentacles of shadow suddenly reached hungrily towards him. Children screamed beneath him, and Jack's heart hammered in his chest. He wasn't fast enough. One of the tentacles touched him, started to wrap around him, and then suddenly it withdrew. Jack slowed, surprised. The Nain Rouge laughed.
'It's a fucking bluff, loser. Augus – the bitch – told me to leave you alone. Sorta. You're for him. Can't even wrap the shadows around you. Whatevs.'
'Jack!' It was Pitch. Jack looked down to see Pitch standing in the doorway, holding his sword up in arms that were bloody up to the elbow. 'Stay away from Augus!'
'Yeah. Good luck with that,' the Nain Rouge said, as an emergency exit opened and Augus walked in, rapier sheathed by his side. Augus looked around at the shadows, and Jack thought he looked almost wary. But a moment later Augus was focused, and his eyes found Jack. Jack summoned a wind to him without words, it whipped at his sweatshirt and his hair, he hoped it would be enough.
Pitch had only just noticed all the shadows. He was looking around the gym, eyes wide, horrified. His eyes fell on Augus, then he looked up at Jack as though checking he was still there.
Gwyn stepped forwards into the centre of the gymnasium, his armoured boots ringing out on the floor.
'Augus Each Uisge, I expected better, from you, of all fae. We used to be friends, you and I.'
Jack blinked hard. Friends? Did the distinctions between Seelie and Unseelie mean nothing to these guys?
'What can I say?' Augus said, leaning back against one of the few patches of wall bare of living shadows in the gymnasium. 'I became terribly bored. The shadows interested me. Perhaps I just wanted to spend my time differently, for a change.'
His eyes flicked up to Jack, and Jack looked away quickly. It felt wrong to look away from a mortal enemy, but he knew it was the best way to avoid being compelled. Augus laughed, and Jack's teeth clenched. In the background, children were quietly crying.
'You have ousted fae from their rightful homes,' Gwyn said, his voice booming through the gym. 'This is a crime whether Seelie or Unseelie, and you know it, Augus. Did you think you wouldn't be called to task? You have breached our covenant with the humans, forcing us into the mundane and the every day, making us visible, when you know that this is not our way. You will be made to answer for what you've done.'
The Each Uisge squeezed some water out of his wet hair, and then looked up, radiating disinterest.
Several of the children made exclamations of surprise when Bunnymund hobbled back in, the skin mostly knitted over his wound. It looked fragile, and his lower half was still covered in blood, but the children looked happy to see him. Jack was even happy to see him.
However, as soon as Bunnymund got close to the children, the Nain Rouge flicked over a wave of shadows that sent Bunnymund sprawling.
'Hey!' Jack shouted, sending a bolt of frost lightning at her. She blocked it with a wall of shadow, which quickly melted back into the pool of moving darkness beneath her feet. Jack shot down to the ground, landing tentatively on the gymnasium floor near Gwyn.
'Let the children go!' Jack yelled. Augus shook his head slowly. But it was the Nain Rouge who answered.
'When someone takes a bunch of kids hostage, Frosty, normally it's polite to ask the kidnapper her terms. So go on then. What are your terms? Maybe if you give me some of that tasty, tasty frost, I'll let a few of them go.'
'I'm giving you nothing. Let the kids go. And give me my life-force back. I want my power back.'
He hadn't expected to say that, but once said, he realised that even if though he didn't hold much hope out that he'd ever get it back – he had to say it. He had to demand his soul back. There was no way he would have been able to keep that inside of him. His soul – even now – cried out for the part of itself that was missing.
The Nain Rouge looked at Augus, and Augus nodded at her, an unknown communication moving between them. The Nain Rouge looked at Jack, a creepy, hungry smile crawling over her face.
'Oh, you want your power back, Jack? You want it?' The Nain Rouge spoke with condescension and mock pity, her eyes opaque and empty as she faced him, two wells of dried blood leading all the way down into the dark. 'How about you take it all.'
She swung her arms back and then thrust them forwards. A spiral of blue frost curled up and out of the Nain Rouge's hands, and Jack swore that his heart stopped to see it again. His soul lurched forwards in his own body, recognising the remainder of itself, wanting it so badly that he thought he'd turn himself inside out to get close to it again.
But behind the frost, shadows poured out of the Nain Rouge's palms, and they swelled up into a giant wave, cresting towards him. Children shrieked and screamed.
How about you take it all.
'No,' Jack whispered, and his mouth continued to shape the word. 'No, no, no.'
Augus watched smugly nearby. Pitch screamed something at Jack. But Jack felt frozen as the shadows pushed towards him, swelling in a writhing mass of darkness. There was so much of it. He couldn't even see the spiral of frost anymore, it was lost in the black. The Nain Rouge was laughing, the sound jagged, cutting at the heart of him.
He jerked when he felt something underneath his foot, and shrieked when he saw a formless shadow wrap around his ankle, swarming up through the gymnasium floor.
It pushed up from the ground and into his foot. He cried out, trying to jerk his foot out of its grip, but he couldn't get himself free. He felt the darkness twisting inside of him, getting comfortable, turning him colder than he ever thought possible. It was as though an abyss had opened up in his bones, it turned his mind to jelly. He quaked. It was alien and wrong and he screamed without thinking, a wail of appeal.
Jack screamed again, trying to tear his leg free of the shadow, causing pain to rip up through his leg. It wasn't working. He was trapped.
He remembered standing outside in the snow as Pitch reluctantly let him know that the wound that the Nain Rouge had torn open inside of him would potentially make him vulnerable to being possessed by the shadows, as Pitch had been. Pitch's arm had tightened in response around his shoulders and at the time Jack had been able to push the thought from his mind, because it was too horrible to think about it, because it just wasn't possible. After all-
He remembered Ondine's face when she had told him that she saw shadows in his future. That she couldn't see until the end of his tomorrow. That she didn't see death, but that she saw shadows. Her eyes had been sad and huge and filled with confusion, and he hadn't wanted to see any truth in what she-
Jack screamed, hysterical, pointing his staff down and blasting the shadow by his feet with frost lightning, cutting his foot at the same time, splitting the skin. It only pushed deeper, wrapped around the bones of his ankle. He felt it there, twisting amongst sinew and muscle. He sensed its awareness of him, hungry, merciless, malicious and connected to something much, much larger.
He looked up, the wave of shadows was quivering over him. It reached up to the roof of the gymnasium and he could feel its mass, its intent. He could feel it through the shadow that sought entrance to him, creeping inch by inch up through his leg. It was hungry. It wanted a home. It sensed the emptiness inside of him. The emptiness that had been growing larger and larger over time. The emptiness ripe to be colonised with darkness.
A blast of golden light slammed into the shadow at his foot, and Jack screamed in agony as his whole lower leg felt like it had been burned from the inside. The shadow recoiled, withdrew, and Pitch pushed it back towards the Nain Rouge, sweeping his sword forwards and sending a huge beam of golden light into the heart of the shadows.
Jack stumbled backwards, wincing as his bleeding foot flared with pain a second time. He couldn't tear his eyes away as Pitch sent wave after aggressive wave of golden light at the bulk of the shadows; it was nothing like training, it was nothing like the military drills. He seemed to understand the shadows instinctively, pre-empting their movements, altering his stance and blocking waves of darkness that attempted to push past him. Jack shuddered and then gagged when he realised that the shadows were trying to weave their way past Pitch specifically so they could reach Jack.
Pitch was only just keeping the shadows back, working harder and harder to try and force a retreat. But every swathe he destroyed with the golden light just made room for more of the black, fathomless masses to swarm forwards.
There are so many.
Pitch couldn't make the golden light forever, and he'd said that one warrior wouldn't be enough. Could never be enough. Jack turned to see where Gwyn was, to tell him to help out, but Gwyn was dealing with a section of shadows that had broken off and were threatening the children. Gwyn was clearly using all of his concentration to defend them, even as Bunnymund tried to direct them out of the building.
Jack turned back and saw Augus staring at him, one corner of his mouth lifted up. He leaned against the wall of the gymnasium with a casual insouciance, one leg over the other, arms folded. It seemed wrong that he looked so unconcerned as Pitch was throwing his all into keeping the shadows back. Jack pointed his staff at Augus with a shaking arm, breathing hard, wishing he could smash the waterhorse out of existence.
Augus' only reaction was a brief smile of amused acknowledgement.
Jack started to summon the frost lightning from his core, when Pitch shouted something at the shadows. Pitch staggered forward, and the shadows retreated, and then surged forward yet again. Pitch screamed words at the shadows that were nothing like the English language; it was the Lunar language, Jack realised. It was meant for the shadows alone.
But the shadows wouldn't stop, they kept coming. Jack saw a coiling mass of it shooting past Pitch directly at him, and he spun around, shooting up into the air.
He felt them, hot and strong for something so amorphous. They slapped hard around his leg and suckered to him like a tentacle. Sounds ripped out of his mouth as he turned and attempted to blast himself free with the frost lightning, but the frost only shattered against the shadows as they crawled up his leg. He was injuring himself, but he couldn't stop. Better to be injured, than let the shadows enter him.
This couldn't happen, he could not let this happen. This isn't happening. It was too much like his horrible nightmare of the Nain Rouge, the shadows weren't supposed to be this strong, there weren't supposed to be this many of them. Terror streaked through him and left him numb.
We'll never be ready.
'Pitch!' The name echoed through the gymnasium, and Pitch looked back once, eyes widening and face contorting with fear. Jack couldn't spare him another glance as the shadow crept further up his leg. It hadn't pushed beneath the barrier of his skin, but it was only a matter of time. He could feel its intent, its voracity. He clawed at it, frost poured out of his hands, but the shadows clung, impervious to his attacks.
A sudden boom, and the air was split with golden light. Jack gasped and fell back towards the ground as the coil let him go. He landed badly. He pushed himself upright with his staff, and blinked – blinded – at what he saw before him.
Pitch wasn't just creating the light with his sword, his whole body was incandescent with it. He was glowing from the inside, rays of light pushed out of the sleeves of his robe, shined around his face, cascaded out from the collar of his undershirt. It shone out of every pore, turning his eyes lambent. Still he swept wave after wave of light with his sword, but he used the mass of light radiating from his body to push forwards and force the shadows into retreat. Jack had never seen anything like it in his life. He'd never even heard Pitch talk about being able to do it.
Maybe he didn't know he could.
Augus Each Uisge stepped away from the gymnasium wall, alarmed. He turned to the Nain Rouge, hiding behind the wall of shadows and said something to her that Jack couldn't catch.
Pitch's chest heaved with his breaths as he pressed his advantage, but the shadows were endless.
Jack felt his heart drop through his chest when Pitch dropped to one leg, suddenly, beneath the onslaught.
'Come on, Pitch,' Jack whispered. 'Come on.'
The light Pitch was making with his body guttered, like a candle flame before a strong wind. Jack's eyes widened in horror. Pitch looked back at Jack, and then faced forwards with renewed resolve, but the flare of light he produced guttered again only a few seconds later.
'No,' Jack breathed.
Behind him, Gwyn yelled something at Pitch, but Jack was beyond comprehending what anyone else was saying. He could focus on nothing but Pitch, his Pitch, the man who had saved him from the malicious intent of the Nain Rouge more than once, who had held him and wrapped arms around him and traced hands through his hair. Pitch who was broken and sad and determined and focused and even playful and dry when the mood took him.
Jack could see only Pitch, shaking as his muscles fought to prevent the golden light from dying, his whole body struggling to keep the shadows at bay.
Pitch who turned to look at Jack with a terrible expression on his face, a despair and desperation that was awful to behold.
'I'm sorry,' Pitch mouthed.
The light guttered again, and the shadows swirled around Pitch, blocking him from view. It was as though their focused had changed. Pitch still directed the golden light with his sword, but it was weaker now, it wasn't lasting as long, it wasn't destroying as much of the darkness.
Pitch's face became clear through the whirling shadows again and he was still staring at Jack.
Jack moaned thinly, paralysed.
Pitch's whole body went into spasm, and Jack ran forwards only to feel arms wrap around his middle and drag him back. He clawed at the armour around him, froze it, but it wouldn't shift. Jack stared ahead, blinked away tears.
'Save me,' Pitch shaped the words.
The golden light died.
The ground began to shake beneath their feet, a rumble that caused the evacuated children outside to start screaming again. Shadows that had previously been trying to reach past Pitch to possess Jack changed their focus. Augus stared between them both, eyes wide, mouth thin. A tornado of heaving shadows swirled around Pitch, and he disappeared beneath them.
The rumbling became louder, every shadow in the gymnasium turned its focus around and shot towards the tornado, whirled around Pitch hungrily.
Jack was struggling as fiercely as he could against whatever was holding him back. He was going to rip those shadows apart with his bare hands. He was going to find Pitch and drag him out, he had to, there was nothing else he could do. A howling wind wouldn't abandon the gymnasium, raced around it, a cacophony of noise. Augus Each Uisge watched the tornado of shadows around Pitch with an avarice that could almost have been horror, if Jack had seen that expression on anyone else's face.
Jack became aware of a wetness in his throat, a terrible shouting that wouldn't stop. He wanted the shouting to go away so he could concentrate, so he could get himself free from his restraints, but the shouting went on and on and on.
He was screaming 'Pitch!' and 'No!' and 'Let me go!' His voice was ragged. He couldn't stop.
He found himself shaken violently by whatever held him back. He blinked, dazed, and the arms still wouldn't let him go.
'You can't do anything! I'm sorry, Jack, you can't!' Gwyn was hanging onto him. Hanging onto him and not out saving Pitch with his own golden light. Jack snarled and twisted to face Gwyn, reached up with hands to try and claw at the fae's face, only to find ribs being squeezed until they nearly cracked.
'Jack!' Gwyn's voice pushed into his ear on an urgent hiss. 'He's going through this so you won't have to!'
Jack slumped, trembling, and the arms around him relaxed their awful, tight grip. He realised dimly that if Pitch couldn't keep up the golden light then there was no way Gwyn would be able to. There was nothing anyone could do, now.
The shadows began to disappear, and a terrible, echoing laughter reverberated around them. It was a laughter which sank hooks into Jack's whole body. It was familiar. He didn't want to recognise it, but he did. He sagged in Gwyn's grip, and Gwyn adjusted his arms, now holding him up, instead of holding him back.
Pitch's sword was suddenly ejected with violence from the mass of shadows, hitting a wall and clattering to the ground.
The last of the shadows that weren't attached directly to the Nain Rouge funnelled directly into a larger being wearing a black robe, a triumphant gleam in his golden eyes.
Jack's throat clutched at a whimper. Something important broke inside of him.
The Nightmare King looked around him, shadows massing beneath him, clinging to him, smudging his face and neck, turning him into a vector of darkness. His golden eyes lingered in recognition when they reached Augus, and then passed around the gymnasium, a cold confidence emanating from his whole body.
He was taller than Jack remembered; greater, somehow. This was not a Nightmare King who wanted to be recognised through bringing children nightmares, this was a Nightmare King capable of destroying entire planets without a second thought. He was like a black hole standing in the centre of the gym, drawing everyone's gaze towards him.
This isn't happening.
The Nightmare King turned back to the Nain Rouge, and then stalked towards her so quickly she didn't have time to defend herself. He grabbed her by the throat with a massive hand and lifted her so that they were at eye level, her feet dangling feet off the ground. Her hands came up, stuck dirty, bloody claws into him, and he snarled at her with jagged, uneven teeth, hands tightening.
'You took something from me, and that's not nice,' he said, shaking her by the throat for emphasis. 'Don't you know you're supposed to share?'
Jack watched in horror as the Nightmare King thrust his free hand beneath the Nain Rouge's uncured skins and leathers. He rummaged around beneath them, ignoring the way she clawed his forearms until blood began to drip from the base of his wrists. At first Jack thought she was being molested, but the Nightmare King suddenly grinned in delight and tore something away from her body. The Nain Rouge yelped, struggled harder.
The Nightmare King held up a silk scarf that had been tied to the Nain Rouge's torso. It was dark violet, and covered in silver Sanskrit that had been hand-painted onto it. He laughed when he saw it.
'So you do fear, and you did block it,' he let the scarf flutter to the ground and his hand tightened around the Nain Rouge's throat. He stepped forwards and slammed her into the wall, seeking eye contact with her even as she tried to avoid it.
A forceful hand on her chin brought her face up, and the Nightmare King made eye contact, holding her in the grip of his gaze.
'Now, where are they?' he said playfully. The Nain Rouge's legs kicked the wall behind her, kicked out at him, but his arm was so long and he was able to arch out of the way. She stilled and then shuddered, and the Nightmare King's eyes lit up with triumph. 'Ah, there.'
Even without being in the direct line of that gaze, Jack felt fear build inside him, even as the Nightmare King built it in the Nain Rouge. She fought him viciously, slipping from struggling into outright panic, her movements turning clumsy and incoherent. She couldn't tear her gaze away from his, and when her mouth opened into a silent scream, Jack couldn't tell if he felt vindication that she was being treated this way, or if he pitied her. He'd wanted her dead. He'd even wanted to see her tortured, but he didn't know if he wanted this.
The Nightmare King shook her again, and swirls of shadows began to spiral lazily out of her palms and feet. They crawled along his body, entered through his mouth and eyes, through his fingertips and slipped into the tops of his boots. Jack realised Pitch was taking back all of it, taking everything he could get his hands on. It wasn't just the shadows that he was absorbing, but traces of other powers, a spiral of green, a spiral of shimmering orange. He took it all, until the Nain Rouge's eyes rolled back in her head, until tears of blood streaked her face.
'Look at you,' the Nightmare King purred with derision. 'Pathetic. That someone who likes taking so much cannot stand being taken from.'
He stepped back and withdrew his hand from her throat, and the Nain Rouge fell heavily to the ground, unconscious. She didn't move.
The Nightmare King laughed deep in his throat, stared down at her with satisfaction.
Then he looked over at Augus Each Uisge. Augus' face shifted from one of shock, to a strange, predatory excitement.
'So,' the Nightmare King said lightly, 'I see you have an opening. Are you currently hiring? I would like an application.'
The Each Uisge's eyebrows lifted. They both laughed together, and when Augus walked over and stared at the Nightmare King with something very like adoration, Jack's stomach heaved on a gag. Gwyn was breathing shallowly behind him, fear turning his normally steady breaths into something far less stable.
'I rather thought,' Augus said, reaching up and hesitating, before tracing the back of his hand over the Nightmare King's cheek with a familiarity that made Jack's skin crawl, 'that you preferred to work alone.'
'The times, they are a-changing,' the Nightmare King half-sang and Augus bared his teeth in something that was almost a smile.
Pitch is in there somewhere. My Pitch.
Jack broke free of Gwyn's arms easily, as Augus and the Nightmare King began to walk out of the gymnasium together.
'Pitch!' Jack shouted, 'you have to fight this!'
His voice was wrecked, he swallowed blood and realised he'd wounded the inside of his throat in his hysteria.
When the Nightmare King turned to face him, Jack stumbled backwards and then couldn't move, locked within a paralysing fear. Brief, long-distance eye contact was enough. The Nightmare King was definitely more powerful than he used to be.
'Didn't you want to break him?' he said casually to Augus, who shrugged.
'It can wait. It would be rude to do so now, here. I prefer no audience.'
'Oh, how I remember what you prefer. It's no matter, there's still plenty of time,' the Nightmare King said. He surged over rapidly in a huge wave of shadows. Jack was separated from Gwyn, surrounded by a funnel of black. He didn't want the shadows to invade him, didn't want to remember what it felt like as they pushed inside of his body. He was terrified that he would be possessed, that the shadows would take him.
The Nightmare King laughed, and Jack saw no trace of Pitch in those golden eyes. Instead, he felt a sense of déjà vu; of standing in Antarctica and having his staff broken by someone who had expertly manipulated him. Of chasing shadows through an underground lair, only to have his fears rummaged through and tossed around him until he thought his head would implode. And that had been a far paler incarnation of whatever he was looking at now.
'Jack Frost,' the Nightmare King said.
Jack's heart was breaking. He kept expecting just a glimpse of Pitch, just something. He knew he had to get Pitch back, somehow, but he wanted a reassurance, a reminder. Numbness swept through him when he couldn't find it, and something hard formed around his heart; a shell of ice.
The Nightmare King cocked his head thoughtfully, and then a cruel smile twisted his face.
'Oh, you two, thinking you had something special. And yet where is he, Jack? I guess he really is going somewhere after all. That Kozmotis, unable to keep his promises.'
Jack choked down his cry, it came out strangled.
I'm not going anywhere.
Jack stomped down on his own pain, forced it deep inside of him, pushed it under until he could concentrate again. If he thought about it too hard now, about what he'd lost, about what he might never be able to get back...
'I will destroy you,' Jack whispered, his voice shaking, the words breaking on the raggedness in his own throat.
'I think I'm going to beat you to that particular finish line, but let's enjoy the race, shall we? After all, we were lovers once. I've been inside you.' The words were a drawl of mockery and Jack's hands fisted even as they shook.
'You haven't, Pitch has,' Jack said, his voice firming. It had never been so easy to see the distinction between the Nightmare King and Pitch, it didn't matter if they wore the same face, shared the same body.
The Nightmare King looked down at him, measuring. And then he looked up sharply when a sword limned in golden light thrust through the funnel of shadow. It was quickly pushed back, but the Nightmare King shook his head in mock regret all the same.
'Can't have the King of the Seelie fae mad at me, now, can we? Guess I'll be seeing you around.'
Jack flinched when a warm hand stroked the underside of his chin. He tried to step backwards, but the shadows kept him hemmed in, and the fingers underneath his chin turned cruel around his jaw, holding him still with a bruising force.
'Sweet dreams, Jack Frost.'
The Nightmare King released Jack from the funnel of shadows and glared at Gwyn, who had his sword up, struggling to make more of the golden light.
Augus Each Uisge held his hand out, an invitation, and the Nightmare King took it as they walked towards the exit. Jack stared at them in confusion. Pain shimmered through him, never quite settling, separate from his body and inside it at the same time. He couldn't believe it. There was no room in his head for what had just occurred.
'Augus, halt!' Gwyn shouted, and both Augus and the Nightmare King turned back.
The Nightmare King stepped forward and Gwyn grunted, his whole body stiffened. Jack shivered when he realised that even from this distance, the Nightmare King was subduing someone as powerful as Gwyn with the eye trick. It was only a matter of seconds before Gwyn was down on his knees, trembling as he tried to resist the terror that the Nightmare King was evoking. Only when Gwyn absently dropped his sword to the ground did the Nightmare King finally look away, offering an easy smile to Augus. Gwyn gasped as though he had been starved of oxygen.
'There's been a change of plans, Gwyn ap Nudd,' the Each Uisge called out. 'But don't fret. You'll get your chance to deal with me soon enough, I am sure. I find I'm rather looking forward to it.'
They turned around, continued to walk towards the exit.
Jack knew in his heart, deep down – beneath the shell of ice that was hardening around it – that Pitch had saved him from the shadows and asked to be saved in turn. There was a terrible resolve thickening around him, turning the play inside of him to focus and determination, turning the fire in his heart to a hard piece of coal.
As the Nightmare King exited, he tossed something over his shoulder casually. It fell to the ground with a light, metallic clink.
Jack bolted forward before anyone could catch him. Different people were shouting his name, but he couldn't hear them. The world was filtering through strangely. He knew he would never be the same again, he knew that his anchor had disappeared, and yet he couldn't feel it. He didn't want to ever feel it. His throat was still bleeding from when he'd screamed it raw, and he knew if he let himself feel the pain of what happened...he didn't think he'd survive.
He skidded down onto his knees and dropped his staff onto the floor when he saw what the Nightmare King had thrown away so easily. It was a sign that things truly were different this time around. He'd never thrown it away before. He'd never treated it like a piece of rubbish.
Jack closed his fingers around the locket until his hand was shaking and it was cutting into his palm. If Pitch was trapped too far beneath the shadows to keep it safe, Jack would have to do it for him. It was all he could do, until he found his way through the shadows back to the man he loved.
Author's Note: TO BE CONTINUED in the sequel: "INTO SHADOWS WE FALL."
Some brief housekeeping facts (with some spoilers):
* It will be longer than From the Darkness We Rise.
* It WILL have a happy ending.
* This is not the last you'll be seeing of Pitch Black.
* Remember you can find me over at Tumblr, as not-poignant
A final, tremendous THANK YOU to everyone who has read this, who has re-read it, who have sent me asks on Tumblr, who have done the most amazing fanart, who have given this story reviews or faves or follows. You guys rock my cotton socks.