Author's Note:

I figured I may as well post early this week.

Enjoy.


Chapter 4:

The Abyss Looks Back

Clashed chords and dissonant harmonies swelled in the song of pain that screamed through Jack's nerves. He could not fight any longer. He could not stand. And Sandy…

"I told you what would happen."

Jack's entire body seized as the soft-spoken address met his ear. He looked over to Pitch, who was leaning against the trunk of a tree with his arms folded. A sadistic grin that could strike fear into even the bravest of hearts curved his mouth.

"I told you not to let them interfere."

"Why are you doing this?" Jack gritted out. No matter the pain, he was determined to save face, but he could not suppress the wince that crumpled his face while his raw nerve-endings sizzled. Pitch began to saunter forth, a derisive tilt to his head.

"This is not my doing, Jack; this is yours. I made very clear what the consequences would be if you tried to have someone else clean up your mess. It was a simple request: keep the others out of the way. You failed to do even that, and so you gave me no other choice. How else will you learn?"

Jack's gaze trailed over to Sandy, suppressing an involuntary retch as shadows crawled all over the little man's prone body. "I still don't understand. Why punish him for something I did?"

"That's what happens when you become one of them," Pitch spat, a sneer curling his lip. His spindly, grey finger unfurled to tilt up Jack's chin until they were seeing eye-to-eye. "You and your actions are eternally bound to those…weirdos. When you chose to become a Guardian, you entered a centuries-long war and accepted all the pain and suffering you could have avoided if you hadn't been so caught up in your own priggish superiority. Though, now that I've seen just how incompetent you are, I think I may have dodged a bullet."

"Get off me." Jack pushed Pitch's hand away, unable to school his grimace of disgust. Wincing and hissing in pain all the while, he crawled over to where Sandy lay unmoving, nauseated by both the sight of the parasitic nightmares, and the burning sensations that flared from his wounds. Nevertheless, he took Sandy's hand in his own. "I didn't mean for this to happen," he rasped, with tears falling and crystalising on his cheeks. Pitch's cold, heartless cackle rang in his ears.

"The road to Hell is always paved with good intentions. You thought you could come and confront me on your own, a little solo mission to prove yourself to the Man in the Moon and his miscreants, but your brazenness and insolence had consequences. To think the Guardians put their trust in you—again. Didn't I always say they were better off without you?"

An icy shard of anguish pierced Jack's soul, a hurt that ran so deep it opened a chasm in his heart. He told himself Pitch was wrong. He had to be wrong. And yet the evidence of his eyes maintained the terrible truth; this was all his fault.

"Where is the Devil?!" thundered a voice from above. Jack lifted his head from where it was bowed over Sandy's shallowly breathing chest, just in time to see North land his sleigh in the clearing. The Cossack stood at the reins with sabres drawn, but he had not come alone; a moment later, Tooth descended from the sky with a swarm of mini-fairies at her beck and call, and Bunny emerged from deep underground with an army of his own.

"North," Jack gasped. "North, I'm sorry—"

"Where is Pitch?" North asked again as he dismounted the sleigh.

"He…he's right there." Jack pointed to where Pitch looked on with unflinching smugness.

"Where?"

"Right in front of you! Don't you…" Mocking, sardonic laughter began to build in the background. His face fell as he was hit by a dizzying rush of panic. "Don't you see?"

"My, my. This is interesting," Pitch had the audacity to purr. With eyes widened in terror, Jack slowly turned to look at him.

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"Jack, who are you talking to?" Tooth hissed, her rapiers at the ready. "What happened to Sandy?"

"You don't see?" Jack asked, staring up at the three of them in disbelief. "You don't…" The unanimous blank look they shared could have crushed him alone. They couldn't see. Not the ghoulish nightmare creatures that were dimming what remained of Sandy's spirit, and certainly not Pitch himself. To the alarm of everyone present, Sandy convulsed, but only Jack was privy to the horror that was the shadowy hand closing around his throat.

"Stop! Please just stop!" Jack pleaded. Pitch regarded him with cold, dead eyes and closed his fist. The sands of time quickened.

"What happened to him?" Bunny reiterated, racing to Sandy's side.

"I just—he was only trying to help—I didn't…"

Bunny's mouth twisted in a frown, like he truly, desperately wanted to believe what Jack was about say. But the remorseful crease to his brow betrayed his wariness, and Jack knew he was beaten.

"It's all my fault." Jack bowed his head and pressed his fingers into his eyes. Yet even in blindness, all he could see was the pain on Sandy's face and the devastation he had wrought. "If it wasn't for me, he wouldn't be here right now."

"You are right."

Jack looked up to see North standing over the two of them. His foreboding figure caused Jack to shrink further into the ground.

"If it wasn't for you, Sandy would not be here at all. He would not be alive."

Déjà vu is a strange phenomenon. It strikes the unwary, often with little more than a moment of clarity that a second later disappears into obscurity. This was not quite the case for North, who found himself wrenched back to a day not so long ago, when the Guardians had nearly allowed distrust to be the death of them. Once, they had doubted Jack's intentions; now they doubted his sanity. And perhaps…perhaps they weren't wrong to be concerned. But perhaps they were wrong about why. When Jack had shown up on Easter morning with his tooth box in hand, they had condemned him without stopping to wonder what had driven him to betray them. They had not stopped to think how the Boogeyman may have been the puppeteer pulling his strings while unravelling him the whole time. Pitch wasn't just tricky; he was a spider that spun a web of lies without ever getting trapped himself. And considering what he was capable of, North had every reason to suspect Pitch was playing a new game. One where he did not intend to play fair.

"Jack, whatever is going on here, I do not think it is your fault. It has never been your fault. You fight for what is right. You fight for justice. And we will always fight alongside you because we trust that you would never intend to harm any of us. We have faith in you."

"That's right," Tooth agreed, carefully, having just caught on to North's train of thought. "You saved Sandy once. You helped us bring him back. Don't ever forget that."

"Yeah…" Bunny nodded. "Yeah, you belong here with us. No matter what that sack of crap is tryin'a tell you."

North grabbed Jack by his shoulders, lifting him to his feet. "Do you hear what we are saying? You are a Guardian. Remember your Center!"

It was like he had been woken from a nightmare of his own. The warmth that flowed through Jack's veins at the resounding affirmation was enough to have him take up his staff in both bloodied hands. Pale blue electricity flowed from his fingers and engulfed the conduit. With a battle-cry of renewed strength, he sent a bolt of lightning towards Pitch. The sneer was wiped clean off his face as he was thrown back and slammed into the base of a tree. With a pained grunt, he collapsed in a heap. In turn, Jack's assault drove the nightmares keeping Sandy under their cursed spell away. They released him with a flurry of hissing screeches.

"Wait, what were you aiming at?" Bunny asked, boomerangs still waiting to be thrown. Jack could not answer. Where Pitch had crumpled to the ground, a mass of rolling, pulsating, dark matter grew. It engulfed his cadaverous body until it became one with the void. From this new creature erupted a voice. One that sounded like it might have been Pitch's vow of revenge, but which gradually degenerated to an incomprehensible scream of rage.

Sandy's golden eyes flashed open, and suddenly the whip was back in his hand. Without even rising, he sent it flying in the direction of the simmering darkness, and a brilliant light exploded forth when it cracked. The darkness gave an unholy scream pained enough to wake the dead.

And then it was gone.

A strange, empty silence filled the clearing as coils of smoke lifted away on the Wind, which had softened to a light breeze. Jack breathed in the stillness, blinking through the glare of sunlight he had not thought to notice before. It was rejuvenation. It was peace, made all the more glorious because Sandy was awake.

"Sandy!" Jack dropped to his knees and threw his arms around the little man, not at all caring about the agony it brought upon on his knees. In no universe could pain compare to the elation he felt. Sandy gave Jack a somewhat puzzled pat on the back, and when he was released, unsteadily rose to his feet.

"All right Pitch," Bunny called into the clearing. "We know you're there. Get out here and fight, you bloody snake."

Sandy shook his head, an unperturbed motion that rendered Bunny speechless. The boomerangs in his paws dropped to his sides

"He's gone now, isn't he?" asked Tooth, making her cautious descent into the circle of five.

Sandy nodded, dusting his hands together. Little granules of dreamsand drifted to the ground.

"I'm so confused," Bunny muttered.

"You got rid of him," said Jack. Sandy scrunched his face and tilted his head thoughtfully. Then he shook his head and pointed to Jack, who was still on his knees.

"Me? I don't—what are you talking about—I didn't…" The battle had only occurred minutes before, but already the events were becoming muddled in Jack's mind. He kept seeing bright lights in yellow and blue. The face of Pitch floated before him, only to be eaten away by darkness over and over. "You really couldn't see him?" Jack murmured, not quite aware he had asked the question.

"Nothing," North replied. "Whatever Pitch was doing, it was not something meant for us."

Jack turned to Sandy. "But you knew he was there. You saw him."

Sandy shrugged and wavered his hand in an uncertain motion; yes, he had seen Pitch, but not all of him.

A small groan escaped Jack's lips. One he couldn't fight back. He clutched the hand that wasn't holding his staff to his side. With his adrenaline wearing off, the throbbing waves of agony he had managed to ignore were returning in droves. He sank to his knees and bit the inside of his cheek, hissing his discomfort through his teeth.

"Jack?!" Tooth abandoned her place in the air and dropped to his side. Her eagle-eyes homed in on the fist he had clenched over his abdomen. And the rusty patch of red half-dried on his front. With shaking hands, she lifted the hem of his jumper to expose the grizzly wound beneath, bandaged by a mere novice.

"Crikey,' Bunny gasped and reached for his pack.

Jack's eyes began to flutter closed. He felt heavy. Between brief seconds of plunging into darkness, he watched snapshots of the others as they crowded close to him. He heard snippets of their frantic conversation but had since stopped trying to understand. There were arms around him. Lifting him. Cradling him to a broad chest, where it was warm and safe. That was all he felt before he succumbed to the siren song calling him away.