The wind shrieked like a suffering infant, while the flock of sheep, with the thick woolly coat that protected them from the storm, tightened their rows to warm up.
They formed a circle, with the small bleating and cold in the center, bowing their heads towards the snow-covered ground, their eyes shut against the whipping air. With their breath freezing on their muzzle, they stood still, resisting the storm.
In their lairs, wolves and bears waited for the storm to cease, the former supported by the comfort of the pack, the latter lonely and resigned. No matter how hungry they were, nothing would push them out until the sharp wind ceased its lament and the blinding snow got tired of blowing.
It was late winter in northern Norway. The bright November landscape had given way to the bleak gray of December, and in the Johannessen family they were all chilled with humidity.
Yet no one worried about chilblains or colds, nor did they think nostalgically about roasted meat, because Granny Inger was about to tell one of her stories.
That evening, the elderly lady was sitting in the most suitable place for stories: in the living room, on the wooden bench next to the fireplace.
" What story do you want to hear tonight?" Inger asked, enjoying the heat of the fire on her back.
Rolf's children sat in front of her, perched on stools. All of them loved the stories, even the second son, Olav, a very reserved child. Hoping to get away from the house and go for a picnic in the woods, he had put his head out the door, drenching himself and returning, knocked down, to a stool in a slightly secluded position, where he had sat pretending an expression of pious indifference.
The others began to make a lot of noise, after hearing Inger's question.
" Sandman and the War of Dreams!"
" Ollie's Odyssey!"
" The Man in the Moon! The Man in the Moon!"
Little Erik was sitting on his stool and waving his arms, while Rolf's shepherd dog raised his huge head, worried by that bustle.
Before Inger could answer, the front door swung open with a clang and the roar of the storm raging outside spread into the room. In the doorway a woman appeared who shook off the snow with long silver hair.
The cold gave her face a particular glow, while the fire illuminated her beautiful and delicate features. Her deep gaze instead reflected the radiance of the same flames now burning in the fireplace.
She bent down and took Erik in her arms. The boy screamed with joy.
" Mom!" he shouted with barely contained excitement.
Ingrid dropped onto the stool and dragged herself close to the heat source. Erik, still crouched in her arms, toyed with one of his mother's braids. She trembled, although it was not noticeable behind the heavy clothing she wore.
" Pray that this damned storm won't last too long" the woman said, with a resigned sigh " Otherwise I'm afraid we won't see your father again before tomorrow evening. Are you telling stories, Grandma?"
" I'm definitely trying" the old lady replied harshly.
" I would like to make a request, if possible" Ingrid said suddenly, with a weak voice. " Tell us about the great battle between the Nightmare King and the Lord of Winter. After all, he's around tonight ... and he seems pretty rough."
Elder Inger hesitated, while older children looked at each other uncertainly.
Among humans, the Nightmare King was called the Boogeyman, the ruler of Fear itself. But long ago, people used to call him also the Lord of Darkness, who went to bad children at night and kidnapped them to their families, or at least this was the belief of the most superstitious. A nefarious, bad omen name to pronounce in times when fear dominated.
Ingrid was trying to hold his son still. Erik, on the other hand, tried to free himself and reach the mother's braid again.
" Very well" Inger said after a moment's hesitation. " I will tell you about the great battle between the Nightmare King and the Lord of Winter ... Jack Frost."
She pronounced that name with a certain emphasis: a harmless name that could not bring any misfortune, a symbol of joy and fun.
None of the others protested, although the stories about the Nightmare King were often considered very scary: Inger's voice, clear and warm, would certainly delight them.
" It all began in a very distant kingdom …" the old woman began.
She stopped and glanced at Erik, who was screeching like a bat and jumping into his mother's arms.
" Ssshhh!" Ingrid silenced him, and gave him the end of her braid again to entertain him.
" It all began in a very distant kingdom ..." Inger solemnly repeated " A kingdom whose name has now been lost over time, the birthplace of the most cruel and frightening creature that had ever been seen in human memory ...the Nightmare King."
Upon hearing that name, the assembled children jumped in unison. Inger smiled reassuringly at them and started talking again.
" He had only one goal: to spread his malevolent influence on all known worlds. And in order to do so, he had built a weapon capable of making all creation sink into darkness."
" What was this weapon called?" Erik mumbled, who was old enough to test the truthfulness of fairy tales by asking the narrator for precise details.
" It was called "the Crucible"" the woman replied. " And the Nightmare King intended to use it right here on Earth. Or rather, on one of the many, in a kingdom where the sun shines all year round and the wind and snow are only legends ..."
Many years ago, in another universe…
The sun turned black, becoming a circle of white flames with a dark heart.
Then, the Rift Valley - the cradle of humanity - split in two, and the Crucible's first pinnacle emerged from it.
The tunnel dug by the Fearlings under the foundations of the planet swallowed the crust and made a portion of the cloak falter, while the rumble deriving from the collapse anticipated by one breath the roar of those demons born from the darkness itself.
The huge ivory tower emerged through the open breach, rising at least three hundred meters above the ground. A structure like they had never been seen in the whole universe, surrounded by large metallic circles that swirled like crazy around the top, where a large globe permeated with unknown energy stood out.
Just a minute later, apparently electrical discharges began to protrude from the sphere, marking the turning on of the machine, whose only purpose was to spread the Darkness through every known dimension or reality.
" For the seven hells, it's the Apocalypse" moaned Hundgain, the lieutenant of the Golden Army, the last bastion left to fight the Nightmare King, Pitch Black, and his army of shadows. An alliance formed by the remains of the Golden Age, of men and magical creatures alike, willing to sacrifice their lives to protect Creation itself from the insatiable hunger of that monster.
He held the telescope to his chest with both hands as he watched the first charge of soldiers die one after the other in a desperate attempt to thwart the enemy's defenses.
The Fearlings pounced on humans by detaching limbs with blade strokes, and piercing deadly flesh with spears and swords spilling directly from their shapeless and soulless bodies. They moved nimbly on the banks of the tower, with yellow luminescent eyes, like those of nocturnal beasts: where their blades didn't reach, their claws and fangs made havoc of the attackers.
Some soldiers managed to cross the first line of defense, trampling on the corpses of their own companions, but their race was short-lived.
Columns of acrid smoke, pregnant with sparks, rose against the leaden sky and the black sun crowned with a steel glow. The Golden Army catapults no longer launched, so as not to hinder the race of the assault troops.
" What are you waiting for? Keep them under fire!" shouted an imposing voice to archers and crossbowmen.
The men jumped at the sudden sound, and only a dozen of them managed to immediately get into position and nock the arrows quickly: the others had to make a second attempt before being able to take aim with trembling hands.
Their eyes fled to the unnatural sky, while the elderly figure of Ombric Shalazar made his way through the army.
Tall, dressed in a long gray toga richly decorated on the edges and a bizarre pointed hat that adorned his head bristling with silver tufts, the sorcerer - whose name had now become legend - was the last survivor of a world that years earlier had fallen thanks to Pitch Black, scourge of the universe and master of the Darkness.
In his right hand he held a wooden stick almost as tall as him, on whose top was set a stone that at first glance many could have mistaken for a diamond, but which in reality was much more precious than any gem: a fragment of star given to him directly by the Man of the Moon, protector of the imagination and of all that opposed the treacherous machinations of the Boogeyman.
" It is not the time to yield" he shouted to the gathered men. " If we lose this battle, everything we fought for will be lost forever! Let's drive these creatures back where they came from!"
" Sir, there are too many" the liutenant stammered, his face white more than the coat of his armor. " We can't advance! They will all transform us, they'll take our souls…"
" Silence, Hundgain! These are not first-born Fearlings, they are only Black's slaves born from mortal fears. They cannot touch our souls!"
" Even the sun has disappeared, it's a sign! The Man of the Moon has abandoned us!"
" Nonsense" Ombric admonished him, pointing with his stick the golden moon that the soldier wore embroidered on his chest. " We are the Knights of the Golden Army! We will not back away from the servants of the Nightmare King!"
He turned to the bugler on his left. " Order all men to attack! We will not be intimidated by these monsters!"
Shortly thereafter, the trumpet let out a metallic sound. The men abandoned the most isolated positions and rushed from everywhere, on foot or on the back of the winged horses, but even the battle steeds were slaughtered by the impetus of the enemy, whose members knew neither hesitation nor mercy, exactly like the being who generated them.
Fearlings' horde went on the counterattack. For one of them killed, two others were able to gaining ground.
At that moment, Shalazar realized that the world was illuminated again and looked up at the horizon: where the sky touched the earth, the blue was so intense that it seemed to be woven with gold threads and on the rock the sun was new full and warm.
Under the Crucible, however, the earth was red and black with corpses and Fearlings.
He was going to win. Once again.
Frowning his bushy eyebrows, Ombric firmly grasped the stick and climbed onto a winged horse.
" Sir!" the lieutenant called him back, and started to block his way, but the magician kept him at a distance with a peremptory gesture of his weapon.
" Take my place, Hundgain" he ordered him. " We still have a chance but, if I fail, our men must not remain without commander."
The lieutenant swallowed, while he held his gaze with dilated eyes. " May the Moon Man protect you" he murmured.
" Thank you, my friend" the sorcerer retorted. Then, he give a quick hit of the heel to the sides of the steed.
He quickly descended the steep hill above the valley and was immediately approached by the soldiers who at that point still defended their position.
" Who is ready to look at death in the face follow me!" he screamed loudly. " And I want a trumpeter with me!"
The angry ringing accompanied the magician's advance into the fray. Shalazar led the way by splitting and climbing over bodies, with three knights to wing him, spurred on by his example.
He reached the center of the valley, right in front of the Crucible, while flashes of light and spells of a now lost religion sprang from his staff, capable of killing a Fearling at the mere contact.
The trumpet rang his challenge again and again.
" Where are you, Black?" called the man with a powerful voice, over the chaos of the battle. " Show yourself! Come and face me, servant of the shadows!"
The Fearlings growled at him in their incomprehensible language, faces without human characteristics and exposed fangs. Ombric paid no attention to any of them.
" Where are you, cursed worm?" he called again. " Come and fight me!"
At the third call, an imposing silhouette appeared among the smoke, on the pile of rubble of the breach at the foot of the Crucible. A Fearling officer, almost human in his appearance, if it hadn't been for his black skin and the golden streaks that furrowed his skin like lava rivers embedded in the rock. He almost looked like a knight, complete with shield and sword.
Ombric raised his staff, but the nightmare creature just stared at him from afar, with golden eyes hidden by the helmet.
" Why doesn't he move?" whispered one of the soldiers to the magician's right.
" It's not him. It's just his general" Shalazar answered, tightening both his eyelids.
Suddenly, the Fearling raised his chin and his attention left the wizard and his escort to move to their right. Sword and shield lowered in a relaxed position.
Ombric turned to follow the direction of his gaze and so did his men.
" The Nightmare King!" one of them moaned.
Pitch Black was there, a few steps away from them. A tall, armored figure astride a black steed whose mouth erupted flames red as blood.
His lifeless gray skin was largely covered with a thick armor bristling with spikes, adorned with a long scarlet cloak that wrapped around its back. Ash-colored hair shot upward, framed a face with sharp features, once human and now belonging to a devil.
When the conqueror's golden eyes landed on the hodgepodge of assembled men, his lips slightly bent into a sneer rose to form a real smile, revealing teeth sharp as knives.
In spite of himself, Ombric felt a shiver down his spine, as had never happened to him in almost a hundred years of war. His opponent was without a shield or any other form of defense: he wielded only a long scythe, almost as tall as he was.
This was the man who millennia before had sold body and soul to the cause of the Fearlings, and who for almost a century had begun relentlessly to reap world after world.
A monster who had exterminated entire universes, Ombric thought with anger and horror.
It was Pitch who broke the silence, as he dismounted.
" Ombric ... I see that the time has not been kind to you" he said in a mocking tone. The voice was smooth and accommodating, as expected from the Devil himself.
" Did you want to see me? Well… Here I am!" he added, spreading both arms with a mocking.
Then he began to move forward, and none of the Fearlings accompanied him, as if they were sure he didn't need them.
The Knights of the Golden Army moved a few steps in front of Shalazar, who with an abrupt nod of the head had given orders to step aside.
He warned himself, but had to bend his head back to continue to face the enemy, much taller than him. Now he could see the splashes of blood dripping from his face and breastplate, yet his armor was intact.
He clenched his teeth. He should not be put in awe. He was Ombric Shalazar, one of the most powerful servants of the Man in the Moon, he would not have let himself be defeated on that day, so fundamental for the fate of creation itself.
He sprang forward first, while evoking a bright silver shield.
Pitch deflected the first spell with the scythe, without even having to step back to withstand the assault. He protected himself from the second attack and from the third, then dropped a blow that chipped the magic shield with an intense rumble. Ombric felt his arm falter under the blow, fired another shot, but even this one was rejected and the enemy pressed him again, from right and left.
The sorcerer turned on himself to keep the shield, always facing the Nightmare King, who studied him, tightening the circle. He moved with the confidence of a champion, and Shalazar had met very few fighters capable of keeping up with him. Taking a deep breath, he raised his staff and fired another bullet of pure light.
Pitch swerved it with his scythe, then arched his arm, continuing the movement, and lowered the weapon to the other side. He was very fast and his muscular power was accentuated by the exceptional stature and weight of his armor.
Ombric raised his shield and parried the blow, but the sweat was now wetting his beard and his breathing was quicker. He fought for a time that seemed infinite to him, never finding a weak point in the opponent's guard. He didn't see the last blow that smashed his shield, making it explode in a myriad of shining splinters and dust.
Shalazar stepped aside to avoid another assault on the scythe. The blade stuck into the ground, generating a shock wave that nearly make the group of soldiers fall.
The magician attacked again, conjuring a long whip of fire from the stick which wrapped around the handle of the opposing weapon. Pitch pulled his arms back, but Ombric held a steady and unshakable position, appealing to every ounce of strength he had in his body to counter the disproportionate force of the Nightmare King.
If he had brought down the leader, the Fearlings army, without a guide, would have dispersed.
The pair of opponents got stuck in some sort of bizarre tug of war for what seemed like an endless time.
When Black finally leaned forward, Ombric knew he had his chance: the Dark Lord offered him his left shoulder and left his head uncovered.
He conjured a long sword in his free hand to strike it from above. He had no chance.
Something pressed the man's weapon, preventing him from completing the action. A flash of blue light - like the sky itself - blew the blade from Ombric's hands.
Without wasting time, the wizard turned in the direction of the point where the surprise attack had came from.
A figure had emerged from the bottom of the ranks of Fearlings.
He had no shield or other symbols attesting to his military power, yet Ombric sensed to skin the danger of that individual, completely wrapped up to his feet by a cloak of the color of the night surrounded by a white fur, his face hidden through a hood dropped.
He grasped what at first glance looked like a sickle, like that of Pitch. But looking better, the sorcerer realized that it was a curved stick entirely made of pure ice. It looked very heavy, but he supported it without apparent difficulty, despite his slender figure.
" Did you really think I would come alone?" whispered a familiar voice behind the wizard.
Ombric dilated his pupils and spun around, but Pitch was faster than him and stretched his left arm from below up. He handed the sickle over and planted it in the man's side. The wizard staggered, losing his grip on his stick, while his men screamed in horror.
His lung was emptying itself of air and filling with liquid like a pierced bagpipe, but he thought of nothing but the mysterious figure who had just made his appearance on the battlefield.
He fell to his knees, barely aware that the Fearlings had threw themselves on his comrades.
Ignoring the screams of terror, he barely turned his gaze to the hooded individual, that sinister reaper, who was now only a couple of steps away from him.
" It's you ... isn't it? I recognize your magic" he muttered, and then let out a disappointed sigh. " I never thought that one of you would join this monster."
" Isn't this the beauty of the multiverse, Ombric?" sneered a voice at his side.
The wizard didn't need to look up to know it was still Pitch Black.
" I have visited many realities, over the years, seen so many worlds, cut off as many lives as the souls I need. And yet ... sometimes Fate still manages to surprise me" the conqueror continued, facing the injured opponent.
The man stared at him with contempt, provoking an amused laugh by the Boogeyman.
" Oh, I know you are angry, I can read it in your eyes. The sense of helplessness is eating you inside, isn't it? All these years spent fighting me ... and for what? To make humanity share a ray of light ... a faint hope against the inevitable?" he asked rhetorically.
Around him, the shadows seemed to swell and stir like tentacles, enveloping the surrounding area in a dark silence.
"This war was won from the start. I am Pitch Black! I am the Boogeyman, the great tempter whose face shines in the dark, the tongue full of sweet promises and poisonous threats! I am are the ungodly action and the perverse will that dwells in the secret corner of mortal hearts! I am the beast that comes at night! Your biggest nightmare and your most intimate desire! Put more than all this... I am the Darkness, the one who brings the end."
Now the Nightmare King's figure loomed over the magician, occupying his whole field of vision.
" And believe me, old friend ... today everything will end" he ended coldly.
Ombric looked up at his executioner, his face adorned with a disgusted expression.
" You hate humans so much ... but you're not so different from the one who gave them the spark. You're like Prometheus, Pitch. Instead of the fire, you stole the power of fear and this made you a prisoner of your own pride" he spat with contempt.
The conqueror's eyes lit up with anger.
" I am not a prisoner!" he hissed through clenched teeth, snapping his tongue through his fangs. " I AM Fear. Maybe I am Prometheus…but freed!"
" You are a monster, Pitch ... a monster created by yourself. The day will come ... when you will lose everything!" Ombric gasped, while a metallic taste began to make its way into his throat.
Pitch remained silent, staring at him with an impassive gaze that conveyed nothing but total apathy.
" That day has already come, you know it" he whispered. " Nine thousand and four hundred and fifty-three years ago, to be precise."
And, having said that, he raised the scythe once more." Goodbye, Ombric ..."
The sound of a loud bang echoed across the length of the valley.
Pitch clenched his hands on the scythe and turned, followed by the hooded man. The Boogeyman's golden eyes landed on a decidedly unexpected scenario.
" What the ..." he whispered.
A dense cloud of smoke had begun to stretch along the side of the immense tower that stood in the center of the battlefield. And then, another explosion rang out in the cacophony of the clashes, preceding by just a second the explosion that ripped apart another section of the structure.
Pitch dilated his pupils and turned an angry look on Ombric.
" What did you do?" he snarled dangerously.
In response, the wizard merely smiled, baring his teeth soiled by his own blood.
" Did you really think that facing you openly was my only plan?" he said with grim satisfaction.
Pitch raised an eyebrow and turned his head once more in the direction of the Crucible. He narrowed his gaze ... and stopped. Then… he saw them.
Small multicolored hummingbird-like blurs swarmed around the weapon like flies, while holding small spherical objects three times their size. A normal bird would never have been able to do this. But those creatures ... weren't birds.
"Fairies" was the first thought that crossed the Boogeyman's mind.
Small and annoying little creatures, the last reminiscence of an entity that in his home world had been a thorn in his side for several centuries, together with four other individuals whose simple names were capable of arousing a feeling of anger and contempt that rivaled only with his hatred for the Man of the Moon.
One of the fairies dropped the sphere she held in her hands. The object exploded in contact with the tower, destroying another section.
No, he corrected himself the instant later. It hadn't destroyed it. At first glance it might have looked like that, but the Boogeyman had lived long enough to notice things that would easily have escaped an inexperienced mind. The section of the tower had evaporated into nothingness, disappearing into the void with a flash of lightning.
What the fairies were launching were not bombs at all, but something much more ingenious: globes made specifically to make space-time jumps, capable of moving objects or people from one place to another ... and that Pitch had modified years before fo traveling accross the dimensions. He didn't think Ombric had managed to get his hand on a stash of those items.
Then the Dark Lord came to an inevitable realization. That practically suicidal attack, the wizard's attempts to challenge him ... were only a distraction.
" The usual Pitch Black" Ombric sneered, spitting another trickle of blood. " You have eyes everywhere ... yet you never notice the most obvious things."
Pitch snapped his tongue and clenched both hands in clenched fists, until his knuckles turned white as the fur of the hooded man who stood to his right, who had remained silent to observe the attack of the fairies.
" Kill them! Kill them all!" the Boogeyman roared, pointing to the little creatures.
The Fearlings obeyed without a moment of hesitation and began to float towards the attackers. But it was too late.
Three more bursts rang out in unison in the valley. A loud squeak was heard, followed by a long series of high-pitched, rhythmic trills. The Crucible, now devoid of those structures so fundamental for its support, tilted to the side and began to fall, raising a dense cloud of dust and debris.
Pitch let out a beastly snarl and turned in the direction of Ombric, raising his scythe to inflict the coup de grace that would end the wizard's life forever. But to the Boogeyman's surprise, Manny's servant was now holding in his hands one of those same globes that a few moments before the fairies had launched against the weapon.
The man gave Pitch a sassy smile. Then, his figure disappeared in a flicker of gray robes, disappearing from the battlefield with a distinct POP! all under the astonished gaze of the Dark Lord.
" No!" Pitch shouted, sinking the sickle into the ground and generating a shock wave that made the earth tremble.
Shortly thereafter, the cloud caused by the collapse of the tower joined him and the hooded man, causing the entire valley to fall into darkness.