Children need nightmares as much as dreams, fear as much as hope or wonder. Is it not the fear of pain that keeps a child from touching a flame? Is it not fear of punishment that keeps them from running wild?
One can only have courage if one first feels fear. One only knows pleasure as a contrast to pain.
The Sandman knows this. Fear, applied at the proper times to the proper things, is healthy. Maybe the others don't understand, but the Sandman does. The others only see the evil side of fear, the side that sucks all the wonder from the world, rips innocence to shreds, darkens the spark of hope. The Sandman sees something different: the self-confidence of facing fear and emerging victorious, the swell of adrenaline and determination. Without the dark, how could one see the stars?
Fear is necessary.
Pitch Black is necessary.
They are not friends, for all they meet time after time over the heads of sleeping children. But they are allies. They learn the ins and outs of each other, piecemeal, a bit here, a word there. Pitch Black is the only one who can understand the Sandman when he signs at his fastest; the Sandman is the only one who knows that even the King of Nightmares has fears.
The Sandman learns of perhaps the most pervasive fear one night. A child has stopped dreaming with his dreamsand, and so he investigates. He finds Pitch Black sitting in the child's room with his back against the closet door, strangely still, eyes fixed on the child but unfocused. There are no Fearlings present; the child sleeps with neither nightmares nor good dreams.
"They can never see me," Pitch Black says. His voice is hollow, like the silence of a fairground after all the merchants have packed up and left. He doesn't look at the Sandman, and he might not be aware of the golden spirit at all.
But the Sandman can do something for this fear. He spins out a ribbon of dreamsand, guides it gently to settle around the Nightmare King's neck: a band of gold to remind him that he is not alone, that someone can see him. It is as soft as down feathers and as light as butterflies' wings.
Pitch Black looks up and sees the Sandman. He says nothing, but his eyes are no longer cold and far away. That is good enough for the Sandman, and he leaves; children are always in need of good dreams.
But things change-the world changes. Slowly reason is subsumed in faith, but faith is not only good. People have as much faith in Hell as they do in Heaven, and more fear for a righteous God than love. They begin to fear all the time: fear that they are sinning, fear that they cannot stop sinning, fear for their immortal souls, the souls of their friends and loved ones and forefathers, trapped in endless Purgatory or heading there.
There is fear too in the mundane things: the fear of a pregnant woman that the birth will kill her or her child; the fear of illness and hunger and poverty; the fear of thieves and of war. These are endless fears, but somehow they seem stronger now.
The Sandman sees shadows where there should be none, dogging people's heals like wolves. Winters are colder and summers hotter. Good dreams are harder to shape and quicker to disperse. His golden sand dulls to brass.
Children are not happy anymore.
He sees Pitch Black the most often of any spirit, and he watches, painfully mute. Pitch Black has always been pale, but his skin turns sallow, and then death-gray. He has always worn shadows with pride, but now he revels in them, in the thick cloak they form around him that boils with Fearlings at the hems. His eyes become sharper, the diseased yellow of withered grass, sickly triumphant.
Humans have a saying: Power corrupts. The Sandman has ringside seats for this corruption.
Finally, one winter when the sun barely shines through thick cloud cover, when people hide inside for desperate fear of the killer cold outside, the Man in the Moon speaks to him.
He will not be alone. The strongest spirits, Nicholas St. North, Toothiana, and E. Aster Bunnymund are all given the same task: stop Pitch Black before he ruins the world with unnatural fear. The Sandman does not refuse the Moon's demand, cannot in good conscience let Pitch Black's reign of terror continue unchallenged.
But there is one thing he must do first.
It's not hard to find Pitch Black: he just goes where the nightmares are strongest. Fear is nearly tangible here, gathering like a miasma above the sloped roofs of houses and in the narrow alleyways between. When the Sandman touches the ground, dispersing his tarnished dreamsand, Pitch Black appears.
"Ho, Sandman. I heard a bit of news that I find…interesting," he sneers. The Sandman waits, and finally Pitch Black continues, "Do you really think you can defeat me? Shove me back into closets and under beds? Now? I am more powerful than any of you!"
For a long moment, while Pitch Black's declaration echoes in the stifling air, the Sandman simply considers the Nightmare King. Then, slowly, images form over his head: himself, first, and then Bunnymund, Nicholas St North, and Toothiana. A thread of shining gold connects them.
"You really are throwing your lot in with them," Pitch Black says. His fury has quieted, and his tone takes on a cajoling slant. "After all this time. We could be glorious, you and I. You know this."
The Sandman's previous thought-image dissolves and reforms into a child. The child's shadow grows out monstrously behind him, curling up into a nightmare creature with claws and sharp teeth. The claws plunge into the child's shoulders, which bend, fearfully, under the assault.
"The fear of children," Pitch Black says, precisely, not a syllable slurred, "has always been the most potent."
Children's emotions are always strong and pure and powerful; that's why it's the belief of children that sustains them. Children give their whole hearts to something—to the Easter Bunny or to Santa Claus, to the Tooth Fairy leaving coins under their pillows at night. To the giver of good dreams. Myths are real to them, and so they come alive.
But Pitch Black was created to keep the fears and pains of children in check, keep them safe and cautious. What he does now, feeding their fears, terrorizing them…unacceptable. The Sandman does not believe Pitch Black will understand that.
So he does the only thing he can, the one thing he came for: he reaches out and pulls all his dreamsand back. The Sandman looks Pitch Black dead in the eyes. He wishes it had not come to this, but he will not do Pitch Black the disservice of avoiding his eyes.
The band around Pitch Black's neck comes apart, grain by grain, until his neck is bare and there is no light in him at all.
Pitch Black utters a faint, barely-audible no when the Sandman begins, heartbreak and betrayal lining his severe face.
Again, the fearful child forms above the Sandman's head.
Pitch Black should have never gone after the children.
His face hardens at that, cold and cruel and remote as the tallest mountaintop. He hisses, "Fine. If it is war you want, then war you shall have."
Pitch Black disappears as if he had never been.