Sandman knew that time was running out.
Like sand trickling through his fingers, he reflected humorlessly in the back of his mind, the one tiny area that was not encompassed with the virulent need to survive.
Pitch's unending wave of nightmares had surrounded him and the little sand cloud that was holding him aloft, an impenetrable blackness closing in on a speck of light. Night blotting out the sun. His arms were tiring, though his sand whips continued snapping at the impermeable mass, whatever gaps he created in the blackness instantly filled by more nightmares. He shuddered to think how many children it had taken to create such power, and how many of his dreams Pitch had tainted.
Rage filled him again—a sensation he rarely felt, a peaceful if easily irritable creature by nature—but as in his prior battle with the Nightmare King, when Sandman had thought Pitch could be defeated by hurling him off a roof (and into a wall or two), fury clouded his vision, fueling his attacks. Pitch had destroyed his dreams, his children's' dreams, and that action was unacceptable. The dreams were all he had, and Sandman would not allow them to be taken. Not anymore, and most certainly not by Pitch.
And so his sand whips strengthened, glowing with the power of his dreamsand, and he attacked the nightmares encircling him with renewed fervor. They only grew in size.
Sandman had turned his back on Pitch. An unwise decision, he knew, but the thickening nightmares demanded his attention. Faintly, he could hear the war cries of his fellow Guardians and felt warmed by the fact that he was not alone. Not really.
He had been thinning the horde, he was sure. He just needed more time. They were all doing their best against this enemy, one they had known and battled for so long, but never on such an uneven playing field. Beneath their courage, selflessness, and bravery, there was a doubt there, he knew. They all had it, festering in the deepest corners of their hearts, but never acknowledged it, Sandman especially. His wild, imaginative dreams always quashed any uncertainty that dared rise. Even now, facing certain demise at the hands of a monster that was everything he wasn't, he did not doubt himself for a second.
But he had turned his back on Pitch.
And no one, not even a small, dreamsand-wielding creature like himself, should disregard the now most powerful being in existence.
And so while he did hear the shouts of his colleagues (comrades, friends, brothers and sisters, he never told them—) as they fought for their lives and the lives of their children just as much as he, he did not hear—or perhaps he did not wish to hear—the whisper of a bow and arrow being formed of sand so much like his own, did not search for the hiss of skin against skin and the arrow was pulled back, did not feel for the whoosh of air as it was released—
But he certainly knew (heard, felt, prophesized) its destination.
With a sharp gasp, Sandman felt his whips disintegrate to nothingness. His small hands clutched at the cold air, fruitlessly searching, groping for—for something, and he distantly heard Jack's cry of "Sandy!" though he could not respond.
The arrow that had impaled him so sharply in the back appeared to crumble, but Sandman felt it—felt it slither into his very being, his very core. He shuddered, suddenly very cold (so, so very cold, ice in his stomach and sprouting from his chest, and he couldn't breathe), his body buckling, and suddenly his cloud of pitiful golden sand was not enough to keep him standing.
The others were calling him now. Jack's voice was the loudest, the most desperate, but Sandman would not—could not—answer him, even if his voice was still under his control and his mind was not spiraling away from him.
He had been tainted.
He knew, felt it in every pore, every nerve—the bitterness of silence, ignorance, crumbling innocence of children. He saw his friends dying around him, without him, watched helplessly as Pitch destroyed them and then every last shred of childhood. The children would lose faith in them eventually, if they had not already. They would fade. Disintegrate like his sand. And what could he do?
Nothing, he knew, as Pitch's black sand crept outward from the impalement in his spine.
Sandman was not accustomed to feeling weak, but now he was insignificant. More than that, even— a speck of sand in a massive hourglass. He knew why Pitch had targeted him, he, the Nightmare King's greatest obstacle. His opposite in every way. But he had fallen prey to fear like all the rest.
What hope was there for dreams when their very embodiment could not contain his own fear?
The process was quick, and frighteningly painful. He felt more than saw the blackness claim his golden clothing, his hands and feet, and it continued upward.
And Sandman did nothing but let it claim him.
There was no fighting fear. No hiding from it. Hide where? In the deepest corners of the Earth it would find him, find everyone…Never before had Sandman wanted to scream and sob at the same time, but had he been in control of his body it would have happened.
He was going to die.
He heard Jack call for him, one final, desperate, apologetic plea, but as the sand of nightmares came up to his throat, Sandman knew the blame truly lied in the hands of the one too weak to repel his fear.
Before the nightmares swallowed him whole, Sandman shut his eyes in case Jack was close by, so he would not see how his golden gaze had been replaced with pitch black.
And he thought no more.