Watch and Wait
It was, to say the least, the start of a new age. Perhaps not in the eyes of the mortals, but of the others. The immortals, spirits, creatures, fairies – no one had not heard of the defeat of the Nightmare King. To say that those of the light were enthralled would be, perhaps, an understatement.
The celebration which followed was overwhelming. North, in a predictable display of generosity, opened the Workshop. To everyone. Granted, the spirits did not flock to the Pole in one day, but for a good week, all manners of beings flitted in and out of North's grandiose home.
In the middle of it, Jack Frost found himself swept up in the commotion. And he loved it.
Not just because of the liveliness of the party. Not just because he was surrounded by his fellow Guardians. Not just because Jamie and his friends were able to secretly visit during one of those days because, well, school had been cancelled due to a rather rambunctious snow storm that suddenly cropped up in Burgess, leaving the children to their own devices. Not just because of the mere reason they were celebrating.
It was because of the people. The beings he met. Never in his three-hundred years had he met so many creatures like him, and while they weren't specifically like him, for he had never seen a single frost spirit in his life, they were his kind: the otherworldly, the long living, the spirits, the immortals.
It was a shame when the festivities ended, but the Guardians continued it quietly within North's home for one final night: a rowdy, close, personal dinner in the kitchens after they shooed all the elves and yeti out.
Following that, business was upon them. North and Bunny immediately snapped back to work as though they hadn't enough time left after losing a week. Tooth was eager to make changes to her schedule, so that she might still step out into the field more often and fly with her mini fairies. Sandy, the most lax of them, held no complaints, save that he had a little sleep to catch up on.
Once more, Jack was left to his own devices, an aimless wanderer, yet his heart was not so lonely. He had friends now. A family, if he wanted to stretch it that far. He found that he did.
Still, not two days post celebration, North quickly summoned them to the Workshop, not with a sense of urgency, but with an air of remembrance. "I am almost forgetting," he chuckled once they were seated around the round table in the Globe Room. "We are needing shifts, yes?"
He received blank looks, and he cocked his head in consideration.
Ah, yes. How could they have forgotten? While the Nightmare King was indeed weakened and had been dragged back to his godforsaken hole, there was still the matter of keeping an eye on him.
The conversation quickly turned into details on what signs to look for, what counted as suspicious activity, what to do if Pitch's dark Nightmares ran rampant when they finished with him, and so on, yet Jack rapped the table with his staff, sending icy sparks out, and voiced the question that they had not yet considered.
"Who's got first watch?"
To say they drew straws would have been magnificent. However, the watch schedule was to be created based on need and time. It should be monthly, Bunny decided, and North stated that he (or she, he added hastily to Tooth) with the most need for time should go last.
Therefore, the first watch obviously fell to Jack, and by succession, Sandy, Tooth, Bunny, and North.
Jack threw a fit. He called them traitors. He begged – in a wholly dignified manner, thank you very much – that he at least be allowed to take second shift. However, Sandy was already asleep by then, and his companions would not let the slot be changed without consent, so away Jack flew, angrily icing a few elves on his way out.
Traitors, the lot of them.
He felt fear. He would not deny it. Standing at the crumbling edge of the hole in the ground that served as the crude entrance for Pitch's lair, Jack found he could not quell his worries. Pitch had been sent a notification via golden dream sand informing him that he would be under watch, but whether he had actually gotten it, or accepted it, was not known.
Flexing his fingers around his staff, Jack descended.
The first thing he saw when he floated out into the cavern was sand. Light wisps of black sand which stirred the air and hushed softly across his bare feet as he flew through it. He descended, weaving through crooked bridges and broken archways until he reached the floor. He tilted his head back to take in the cavernous lair.
The ceilings, the stalactites, the hanging cages, the lurking shadows that he just knew were remnants of Pitch's power. He hadn't imagined this place being so big. The last time he had seen it, the floor had been covered and piled high with millions of elegant tooth canisters. Yet he stared at the empty space now in awe and imagined the place decked in frost, and almost smiled by the image of glistening ice chandeliers and snowy bridges and—
"Letting your guard down already?"
His head snapped down harshly and he slapped his staff in his other hand, forcing a spark of ice from each end. Blue eyes scanned the shadows quickly, but found no movement to take in.
The heat was searing against the back of his neck. It sent lazy curls of warmth through his back, forced something to shift in his stomach, put an extra beat in his heart, tickled his toes into curling.
He supposed fear felt different every time.
Jack shoved the butt of the staff back but felt nothing connect. He glanced behind him, then before him, and was met with twin solar eclipses.
He had seen them before. Eclipses, of course. They were usually torturously slow in forming, and he had gotten bored of watching and usually found something else to do before finally looking up at the crucial moment and regarding the finished product of the heavens. He had always felt a burst of wonder towards the Man in the Moon for being a part of this beautiful occurrence, even when he was angry at him for remaining in silence.
Something was different here. Very different, very wrong.
These eclipses were close, so close to him. He saw himself in them. He saw his shock and fear in his reflection. These eclipses felt alive. And these eclipses felt dangerous.
Pitch Black chuckled quietly at his frozen prey and stepped back, finally giving Jack a chance to breathe. He remembered how to breathe, right?
"Rather stupid of old North to send their weakest link."
Jack caught his mental bearings, but could only mumble, "Bastard."
That toothy grin gleamed as Pitch melted with the shadows. "Touchy thing, aren't we? So what are you to do with me today, Frost? Read me my rights? Shadow my every move?"
Jack knew he shouldn't be scared. His lip curled in a sneer. "I'm just here to check in. One day every few months for me. Doesn't mean I have to watch you all the time."
An ashen hand gracefully gestured around the cavern. "Then by all means, check. Wander into a tunnel, why don't you? I'm sure you'll find something quite fascinating there."
All this time, Jack's ears had been pounding with his heartbeat (it never ceased to amaze him that he could still have a heartbeat). As his hearing cleared and he focused on Pitch's voice, something seemed…off.
The voice was usually smooth, silky, layered with black velvet and black promises. Yet now, while the charm and eloquence was still there, it sounded rough. Hoarse. Scratchy.
Like it's raw from screaming.
"Where are the Nightmares?" Jack inquired immediately.
Pitch's eyes shifted ever so slightly to the side. "Still here."
Jack pointed his staff at Pitch, not sure if he wanted to appear threatening or simply demanding. "What happened to them?"
The laugh, while scratchy, was deep and scornful and, though Jack thought it was his imagination, perhaps a bit annoyed. "What's the matter, Guardian? Worried that I might be accumulating power if I've gotten a few horses under control?" That smile curled into a sneer. "Well, don't. My power was lost with the dream sand. The Nightmares are around here somewhere, wandering. They're done with me. They will probably fade away without a source of fear to feed on."
Why did Jack feel like there was a "so will I" lurking in there? His eyes flickered upward to the way he had entered, thinking of the wards North and Bunny had set up around the clearing topside. They alerted the Guardians whenever Pitch left his lair, and prevented him from teleporting directly into their territories through his shadows.
A quiet sigh turned his eyes back to Pitch. The Nightmare King was looking off to his left at a series of tunnels. "Go away, Frost. I read the notice. You are not required to remain in my presence for twenty-four hours. This is just a social call." He glanced back at Jack and suddenly grinned widely. "I can see you shaking from here. And your fear smells quite tantalizing."
Jack looked down at his hands and indeed saw visible tremors running through them, shaking the staff. He lifted up and hovered a few feet off the ground, tucking his legs under him as though he were afraid the shadows would suddenly leap off the floor and latch themselves onto him.
No. He was afraid.
And Pitch was staring. "Get out, Frost. I have no need for tepid watchmen."
To say that the first shift could have gone better was an understatement. Upon relating it to his fellow Guardians, Bunny laughed. The others were a bit more sympathetic, even reassured him that it was perfectly well and fine that he hadn't searched a few rooms or tunnels to make sure Pitch wasn't planning something with his shadows.
They all pressed on through the months, and soon each of their shifts had passed.
Jack arrived at North's Workshop expecting the others to be there so they could decide the next order of shifts, but North was busy, the others were quite absent, and when Jack mentioned Pitch, North mumbled that perhaps he should search a tunnel this time.
With a sinking feeling burrowing its way through his stomach, Jack caught a quick wind from the Pole to Pitch's lair the next morning, knowing that this schedule would remain permanent. When he easily slipped down the hole and touched the cavern floor, he was ready, heart steeled against whatever Pitch had to throw at him.
He was greeted by silence.
A quick turn about that area of the cavern floor proved that Pitch was absent. Jack stopped and turned his eyes to one of the tunnels. After a moment, he tamped down his fear, wielded his staff before him, and stepped into the dark maw.
It took three steps before his throat closed up.
He could see nothing before him, not even with the dim glow of the cavern at his back. He remembered a blackness like this, long, long ago. Centuries ago, before he had awoken as himself.
While the cold hadn't bothered him, the darkness had.
This darkness did not merely bother him. It frightened him.
There was a deep inhale of breath, and he almost didn't realize that it hadn't come from him until a throaty voice purred in his ear, "Your fear smells amazing."
That gave him the push.
His staff sang with violent blue light, and he spun it in a wide ark with a cry. He knew the wave of frosty energy struck nothing, but it cut through the darkness like a blade, and he thought he saw individual shadows scurrying back, further into the tunnel. He flew out into the open quickly and took several deep breaths, trying not to quiver with rage at the sound of Pitch's laughter.
"Oh," Pitch sang, stepping from that very tunnel, "not as well adjusted as we thought, hm?" Jack didn't even try to move as he approached. "I say, Frost, you seem more frightened of me now than you were when I posed a threat. I think I like this fear of yours better."
Jack wearily looked up at the tall shadow walker and blinked. Pitch was different. He had changed quite drastically, in fact. His cheekbones were sunken, and his figure, while rather lean before, had diminished. Jack felt like he could reach out and snap any of Pitch's limbs like twigs. That thought made his lips curl upward smugly.
He stood his staff upright and hopped on the crook, stretching his back until he was on Pitch's eyelevel. "Keep talking about my fear being so tasty like that and I'll think you're flirting with me. And I don't think you'll find a lot of fear in me anymore. Not after what I'm seeing right here."
He knew Pitch understood what he was talking about, and he felt a dark satisfaction curl about his heart as he watched those golden eyes simmer with rage. That was another thing though: Pitch's eyes had dulled. They were no longer vibrant. Even now, as Pitch stepped back and rested in the shadows, Jack had to stare rather hard to track those golden eclipses.
"Are you dying or something?" he asked quietly.
Pitch scoffed, equally quiet. "Of course not."
It was essentially a silly question. Jack knew they couldn't die naturally. Only if another spirit like them brought about their deaths in an unnatural manner. Pitch certainly wasn't going to be attacked anytime soon. However, that brought no comfort to Jack – and he didn't know why he was seeking to reassure himself that Pitch wouldn't die – especially because Pitch did not look well, period.
"Are you sick?"
"I was unaware that we could contract illness."
Jack tried to search for another way to delve into Pitch's condition, but the Nightmare King beat him to the next sentence.
"Why do you care?"
Great question. I don't know. Jack's lips tightened in a thin line, and he tried to think of a good answer, but nothing came to mind. Pitch's gaze grew skeptical, and he seemed to nod, as though he understood that Jack didn't know, and it was perfectly acceptable.
Neither spoke a word, and the Jack slowly turned and left, pondering on Pitch's wasted state. He wondered what the man would look like after five more months, and shuddered when the image came to mind.
"I think he's sick."
"Sick?" Tooth repeated, flitting about the exterior of the hanging tower which represented South America. "We don't get sick."
"Yeah, I know," Jack said impatiently as Tooth chattered quickly with some of the mini fairies organizing teeth in the Brazilian sector. "But he's not well. Have you ever seen a spirit that just looks like he's…fading?"
Tooth paused and looked at him, oddly sympathetic. "Yes, but I hardly think that's happening to Pitch Black."
"But he looks—"
"Jack, before you came along, we defeated him plenty of times. And time after time, he didn't fade, I promise you that. We didn't keep tabs on him, but we always knew he was out there."
Jack shuffled his feet in mid-air, silently willing the flighty fairy to just pause and actually consider what he was saying, but Tooth continued, "He's not dying, if that's what you're thinking."
"N-no, of course not," Jack said. He hesitated, then bowed out gracefully. "Maybe I'm just overthinking it. Sorry, I'll let you get back to work."
Now Tooth looked like she was actually listening to him. "Jack, you can tell me whatever is really bothering you."
This is what's bothering me! We've dropped him into a hole to rot! But Jack carefully masked his frustration and shook his silver head. "Naw, I'm okay. Thanks, Tooth."
Bunny was next on his list, and Jack knew the conversation was doomed from the moment he hinted at Pitch's state.
"The little rat's finally gettin' a taste of his own medicine?" Bunny laughed from atop one of his stone warriors, carefully overseeing the march of his precious eggs. "It's about time."
Jack didn't know where this annoyance in his chest was coming from. He chose his words carefully. "If by medicine, you mean being forgotten, then sure. But he's already gone through this once before. I don't think it's right."
Bunny's ears were at half-mast, signaling that he was listening, but not paying attention to the weight behind Jack's words. "And you think it was right for him to make us disappear n' fade from the ankle biters' minds? He gets no justification, kid."
"I'm not justifying what he did, I'm just—agh, you're the worst person I could have come to!"
Bunny didn't watch him leave. Probably didn't care.
Sandy didn't really want to talk about Pitch. Jack tried to mention the Nightmare King's condition, but Sandy began to rapidly flash so many symbols that Jack had to hold up his hands in defeat and try again.
"Okay, okay! I get it. You're still angry that he took your dream sand, and you have every right. But, oh, don't make that face. I'm angry at him too, but he doesn't look good."
Sandy gave something along the lines of a satisfied snort.
Jack sighed and flopped down on the golden island of dream sand. "Sandy, it just doesn't feel right leaving him like that. It feels cruel."
Slowly, Sandy pushed out a few more streams of sand into the night before sitting down beside him and patting his knee. The look on his face said, There's nothing you can do.
Jack's lips twisted to one side. "I guess you're right." As he stood, Sandy put up a sleigh above his head. "You think I should talk to North?"
A firm nod.
"Okay. I'll catch you later. Make sure you bring those kids some sweet dreams!"
He got down to North and blurted his concern as soon as he burst into his private office.
"I think Pitch is dying!"
North wasn't looking at him. His eyes were glued to the floor in shock. Jack looked down and saw the twitching remains of a shattered dragon made of North's prototype ice, smashed by the heavy oak door. Jack coughed. "Oops."
North closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths before spreading his hands and giving Jack a patient smile. "Yes?"
"Pitch," Jack started.
"Is dying?" North finished.
"Maybe not," Jack admitted, waving his staff and watching the dragon slowly knit itself back together due to his power. "But he doesn't look well."
He couldn't describe the relief he felt when North gestured to a stool in the corner and folded his hands in his lap. "What did you see?"
Jack dragged the seat forward and settled on it, carefully describing the slight change in Pitch's condition, how he had looked and sounded. The more he spoke of it though, the more he wondered if he was overreacting. He was talking about a king of shadows and darkness, a man who walked side by side with evil and found it companionable. Still, when he finished, North nodded understandingly.
"I think it is good you care," the white-bearded Guardian commented. "Even if Pitch is bad, you have compassion. Very good."
Jack waited for the "but" to come along and contradict his worries, but North just leaned forward, a jolly twinkle in his eyes.
"I have theory. I think he is sulking."
Jack blinked, and laughed. "Seriously?"
"Yes!" North insisted emphatically. "You have seen people physically change because they are dissatisfied by something, no?"
"I guess," Jack said, feeling a little silly.
"Or maybe the Nightmares took too much from him," North added gravely. His face lit up when the dragon rose from the floor on elegant wings, whole and spitting snowflakes. "Just wait, Jack. I'm sure it's nothing."
Jack's head agreed. His heart didn't.
The silence this time was unnerving.
Jack kept his staff alight with frost and blue light as he crept towards a different tunnel. He hadn't liked what he had seen five months ago. It had brought about a thread of guilt. Granted, that had only lasted for a few days, and then he had thrown himself into the wind without a care. Now that he had returned, he found the ugly reminder: Pitch was indeed wasting away from lack of fear to feed on.
His voice was so small, and it echoed quite impressively in the right areas.
"Pitch, get out here!"
The silence fell heavily after the echo died down. Jack stepped into the tunnel, but was immediately repelled as something heavy slammed into his stomach.
He skidded on his back, the weight still on him. Bony fingers delved into his wrists and forced them above his head. His staff clattered aside, and he howled as a knee pressed right into his ribcage. There was harsh breathing, and he looked up and saw dull gold eyes with black pupils blown wide so that the gold was merely a thin ring. The face he saw was not that of Pitch Black, but of something darker, something hungrier, something desperate.
The mouth opened and sank down, and Jack waited for his flesh to be delved into, but it didn't happen.
A deep, gasping breath sounded by his ear, and he wildly twisted his head to see Pitch inhaling as though he had just come up for air after a long wait underwater. Jack reclaimed his senses as he realized that Pitch was feeding on his fear.
As Pitch inhaled, Jack felt some of his fear receding. His mind grew clearer by the second, to the point where he could think finally think calmly enough to do something about it.
Jack sucked in a breath and blew hard on Pitch's exposed, tendon-taught neck, creating biting whorls of ice that startled the man enough. Jack knocked his head into Pitch's, drove his free knee up into his stomach, and pushed the winded shade off of him. He scooped up his staff and was ridged with caution as he pointed it at Pitch, slowly circling him.
His fear returned with a snap, but he could not muster up anger of any kind with it. He stared at the fallen shade with wide blue eyes. "What the hell happened to you?"
Pitch scratched dull nails across the stone and slowly lifted his head, pushing himself into a crouch. His black robes pooled at his feet, and Jack heard soft neighs echo about the cavern. He looked around and saw Nightmares creeping to the edges of bridges, snorting and stamping anxiously. Hungrily.
"Shit," Jack murmured when Pitch snarled hungrily into the earth. He backpedaled and lifted off into the air when Pitch lunged at him again, shooting for the exit. The Nightmares bucked wildly and flew after him. Jack shot out of the hole and paused to look down. The four-legged beasts were crowding forward, but as soon as their heads pushed out of the hole, a golden pulse spread over the ground, sending them into frantic cries and forcing them back down into the dark.
The wards had done their jobs.
As soon as Jack was sky high, he caught a fast-paced wind towards the Pole. He needed to have a serious chat with his pals.
"What do you mean, rabid with hunger?" Bunny scoffed, paintbrush poised just above the eggshell. He was always painting, always. "I just saw him two months ago and he looked fine."
"And I, last month," North added seriously, folding his hands. "How could it be possible he appears to be dying to you, healthy to us?"
"He's hiding it?" Jack suggested, resisting the urge to say duh. Why weren't any of them as concerned as he was? "Doesn't want to show you four his weakness? Probably feels he can get away with it with me. He was feeding on my fear, North. He was hungry, and I could see it."
The Guardian of Wonder sat back and folded his hands together contemplatively. Jack watched him warily, glad that the great man was considering his opinion seriously. At length, North murmured, "I see how he could hide bad condition, but this hunger you say…" He shook his head, beard rippling like a white ocean. "Is not possible. He is immortal, Jack, like us. Like you. We are all different, but concept is the same. Have you ever had hunger as a spirit?"
"No," Jack replied slowly. "Still doesn't explain why he was acting like that."
"To get a good scare outta ya, mate," Bunny snorted, kicking his large feet up on the table. "Probably did it to get a taste a' your fear. He likes doing that. And it worked, right?"
Jack was already shaking his head. "No, Bunny, this was different, I swear. It's like…like…" The words died on his lips and his eyes widened. "You say he doesn't have to consume fear to survive, but he does it anyway?"
"For fun," Bunny emphasized with a jab of his paintbrush, dripping bright yellow onto the rich wood of the table. North made a disapproving noise and reached over and wiped it off.
"He's been doing that for centuries then, probably," Jack continued. "This is like withdrawal! I've seen it before. I hang around humans more than you. I've seen adults go through this. Drug addicts, alcoholics."
"If it is withdrawal," Tooth sighed, "then we should just let him ride it out. He'll recover."
"What if he can't?" Jack pressed. No, wait, he knew Pitch wouldn't recover. Not without a source of fear. He would just wither away like his Nightmares. "We can't just let him become a shell."
"And why the bloody hell not?" Bunny snapped, fur ruffled in agitation. Jack didn't blame him. Pitch was a sore subject amongst all of them, even when they had the advantage over him. "You want us to let him out and, what, feed so he can get stronger?"
Sandy, who had been listening quietly, joined in by flashing a myriad of symbols that made no sense to Jack, but Bunny was nodding emphatically. "Exactly. Sandy's right. There's still fear in the world. It's not like children, or adults for that matter, are becoming dumber than rocks and stickin' their noses into danger. Why do you care about what happens?"
Why do I care? Oh, that's a great question. Shit, that's a really great question. That I don't have an answer to.
Jack growled, angered by the fact that he didn't know why he was pushing for this so hard. "Listen. When he fed, he…I felt my fear leaving. When I got away from him, it came back. Can he do that? Is that what he does to children?"
Sandy put forth a few symbols. A child in bed with a Nightmare prancing about her head. Pitch's tall, proud shadow coming forward and inhaling the Nightmare until there was nothing left.
Jack nodded. "So he lets the kids have the Nightmare so he can take fear, but then he takes the Nightmare and leaves for the night? Does that mean the kids have no fear the rest of the night? No dreams until the next night?"
Sandy waved his hand in a sort of gesture.
"Then what's the problem?" Jack cried, throwing his arms wide.
"We can't just let him run around without checking up on him," Tooth protested. "And we can't watch over him all the time because we have jobs to do."
"Then let him send his Nightmares," Jack replied. "They can collect fear, I'm sure, and bring it back to him. He doesn't set a foot outside the wards."
Bunny was scowling at him, nose twitching uncomfortably.
Jack grinned slyly and said, "Why don't you take my shift then, Bunny? Show up on a day he's expecting me and see what happens?"
The Pooka blinked once, then returned the grin, though it was more of a grimace. "Let's go with the kid's plan. I'm in no mood to change my schedule."
Jack was surprised. Of all the Guardians, he had expected Bunny to fight him tooth and nail on this one. But he nodded his quiet thanks, and Bunny rolled his eyes as though he were surprised that Jack would think anything otherwise.
North shrugged. "Is good idea, then. We send notice next shift."
"No, we do it now," Jack said, standing. "What if he attacks you guys on the next shift? He seemed pretty far gone to me."
"You're really pushin' this, mate," Bunny warned, but he didn't sound too concerned. He seemed resigned to the fact that they couldn't let another spirit fall into madness, no matter what Pitch had done. Perhaps he saw it as an act of cruelty and just didn't want to be put in the same group as the Nightmare King.
"You will go?" North asked, surprised, eyebrows floating up. "After what he did today?"
"The sooner, the better," Jack insisted, recalling the incident. He shuddered violently. "Seriously, guys, it was gross. He was breathing down my neck and everything."
And that breath had been hot and labored and pained, and Jack had wondered all the while if it was his fault. He knew it was a twisted way for his mind to go, and hardly accurate what with the crimes Pitch had committed. But it had still…hurt to look at Pitch's broken figure and know that he was…
Tooth looked a little disturbed at the image of Pitch hanging over her, and Bunny's whiskers had drooped. It seemed he could have done without that information. Turning to North, he said quickly, "Tell him how to alter the wards. I don't want that bloody creep droolin' on my fur when I have to visit."
Jack's flight was slow and leisurely. It hadn't taken him that long to learn how to adjust the wards. Just a few symbols and the deed would be done.
When he entered the cavern, he was surprised to find Pitch standing tall by his dark globe. As Jack's pale feet touched down on the stone, Pitch glanced back and raised an eyebrow.
"Back so soon? Though I had scared you off for good."
"Can't get rid of me that easily," Jack replied with a smirk.
"A pity," Pitch intoned, turning back to the globe. He traced a few lights with bony fingers, and Jack stared. He seemed in a right mental state, but his body was clearly falling apart.
"Was it on purpose?"
Those fingers didn't stop moving. "You'll have to specify. I hate vagueness."
"Attacking me," Jack huffed. "Were you just doing it to scare me, or were you seriously hungry?"
"The beauty of immortals is that we have no hunger."
"Wrong," Jack snapped. "You were totally hungry."
Pitch turned gracefully, robe fanning out beneath him. "Look at me, Jack Frost. Do I appear to be starving?"
Jack wasn't fooled. Pitch was displaying himself with confidence, but that didn't change the fact that his appearance was still gaunt and sunken. Jack trailed his eyes down Pitch's neck to his sharp collar bone, then down the open slit of the robe. The cloth seemed rather loose around his chest. Pitch could clearly read Jack's face, because his smug look faded away to grim resignation, and he turned away.
"So it's not hunger," Jack cautiously put out there, "but withdrawal?"
Pitch craned his neck to the ceiling, voice faint. "Yes, I suppose. They do tax me so."
Jack ventured closer to hear. "What does?"
The Nightmare King spun quickly, forcing the nimble frost spirit to leap back on guard. "I cannot comprehend why you are still here. Did those fools sent you back to finish out your shift?"
Ooooh, yeah. "Right, no, um…do you…would you like to…"
Pitch was already turning and walking off the edge of the overhang. Jack's "Wait!" didn't help as he peered over. The Nightmare King was gone.
Jack raked his fingers through his hair. Now was not the time to get tongue tied. He was here for a reason. As he floated up to the entrance, he called behind him, "Just gather your Nightmares, okay?"
He stepped outside into the dead clearing and immediately went to the first tree. He pulled the piece of chalk North had given him from his pocket and began scrawling a new symbol over the elegant one which was written there. When he stepped back and looked his work over, he winced. His was a sloppy imitation of elegant swirls and delicate lines that Tooth had put in place almost immediately after Pitch had been dragged down. Still, it would have to do.
Jack ran back and stuck his feet in the hole, then yelped when he saw gold glaring up at him. He hovered over the hole and waited for Pitch to say something.
"…The wards have changed."
Jack swallowed and nodded. "We decided that you can…send out your Nightmares without us having to watch out for them. If you can use them to collect fear, they can come back here and give it to you. That's what you need, right?"
The golden orbs disappeared immediately.
Jack frowned and leaned forward. He would admit, sticking his face in a dark hole was a very stupid thing to do, but he was surprised that Pitch hadn't commented on the generous adjustment. He turned and listened. A soft hissing sound was bubbling up from somewhere down there. It grew louder and louder until it became familiar, and Jack jerked back just in time as the hole exploded with black dream sand.
Vicious shrieks and whinnies echoed about as the Nightmares took shape, black as night, elegant as calligraphy, restless as the wild creatures they imitated. Their eyes blazed with internal golden fire as they then leapt up in the air, hooves finding purchase on the dead branches of the surrounding trees to give them an extra push. Then they scattered, tossing flowing manes in the wind and racing away from the sun.
I guess it's always night somewhere.
Jack glanced back down. The hole was nothing more than a dark pit, and there was not a hint of an eclipse to be found.