Always be with you

Chapter 3: Nightmare King

"The most painful goodbyes are the ones that are never said and never explained."- Bilal Nasir Khan.

Chapter 3: Nightmare King

An ominous feeling woke Jack from his sleep. The room looked as empty and quiet as ever, but something was not right. A feeling that could not be turned away coursed through him as he became more aware.

He blinked and stirred quietly, softly with his fingers closed on his staff. Something cold and foul was creeping near, only it didn't feel like the cold blast of wind he revelled to be in. It felt like hollow fingers clawing at his neck and shoulders. Out of the corner of his eyes, Jack saw the room darken, as if all light was being chased out.

Lily turned in her sleep. The movement drew Jack's gaze and he quickly checked to make sure she was alright. She was, moonlight spilling through the windows onto her like a little blanket. The moon was shining as bright as ever, but as Jack's gaze remained fixed he saw the light covering the little girl slowly growing feebler and tainted as the first of black sand crept in. Darkness began to engulf the entire room and a shift of it came close to Jack, but quickly brushed it off when he raised his staff.

It was enough for Jack. He had recognised it. That black sand is unmistakable. But he didn't want to believe it...

It can't be.

Jack leapt up and was steady on his feet in a second, hand tightening around his staff. Alert and cautiousness found its way to his features and held tight onto his heart. He wasn't afraid, but he knew this was not an enemy he could lower his guard in front of.

A full cloud of chaotic black sand unfurled right before Jack. Soon enough, the shape of a tall, eerie-eyed man appeared.

"Pitch." Jack growled.

The Nightmare King had come.

...

"Ah, my old friend," breathed the Boogeyman, narrowing his eyes while his mouth quirked in an amused smirk. "Jack Frost. The odds of us meeting here. Fate must indeed have an odd sense of humour. That, or the fact that you always stick your nose where it doesn't belong, Jack." He spat.

"You and I are not friends." said Jack, pointing his staff at Pitch's chest. He looked exactly the same as he had the last time they had encountered each other. A slim, towering pillar of a man who appeared to be thin enough to snap like a twig but Jack knew could hold his own in a fight against fully assembled Guardians. "Why are you here?" Jack demanded. "You're supposed to be sealed away. How did you get out?"

"Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Jack." The dark spirit clutched his heart, as if gravely hurt but for the mocking smile on his lips. "You escaped my Fearlings quickly enough back during the war. What makes you think I would have any more trouble?"

"Stop playing around!" Jack snarled. His gaze hardened and he could feel splinters from his staff cutting into his hand as he gripped it angrily. Just seeing Pitch stoke up the rage that had subsided over the three years. Now it erupted back in his heart in the form of protectiveness towards the small child. "If you're here for the kid, I won't let you."

"You'd better not underestimate me, Jack." He warned, his golden eyes glittering with malicious intent. "I'm not what I was." with that, the darkness increased. His whole body glowed, if only a sickly crimson hue.

A pack of Fearling wolves suddenly sprang at Jack. A burst of glittering ice from the tip of Jack's staff batted them away. But more creatures were coming for him, closing in. Not just wolves but Nightmares too; giant, Clydesdale horses that reared up and tried to trample him. This time, Jack leapt away from the snatch of their jaws and hammering hooves with agility.

Jack cursed as the pack, knowing that it wasn't going to get him that easily, began to tamper off into groups. One pack of wolves headed for the little girl and the other two started stalking him carefully, trying to trap him into a corner.

"Oh no you don't." he snapped, launching himself up and over the wall of dark creatures and sending a wave of ice at the demonic Fearlings that were rapidly encroaching on the girl. They immediately shattered into a thousand icy shards. Jack strained not to grimace when he felt them crunching beneath his feet as he landed. Deftly swirling around, Jack swung his staff and fell into a protective stance in front of the child.

"Stay out of this, Jack Frost! This doesn't concern you!"

The Boogeyman clenched his teeth. His hand flickered and a wave of black ink and shadows crashed into the young Guardian, sweeping him up and slamming him against a chest of drawers. The piece of furniture was hurtled on its side, tumbling over with loud thumping noise. Jack fell onto the ground, but his fast reflexes were enough to instantly hoist himself up with the help of his staff. As soon as he could see clearly he started launching a barrage of icy spears and silver whips of ice to counterstrike his opponent's, trying to drive him out of the room.

The spears impaled the first line of shadow creatures. But strangely enough, they were swallowed by a hurling surge of darkness, where they disappeared or mingled with black. The enormous wave bore down upon the young Guardian and swiped Jack's staff away. In a moment, he was barricaded against the wall. Shadows wrapped around him like a cocoon of smoky black, leaving only his face free.

Pitch's triumphant laugh pierced the air. "Again, I win Guardian." He said, walking over to the fallen staff which Jack was struggling frantically to reach and kicking the staff across the room. "Really, you would think you'd have figured out by now not to fight me."

Jack spat at him. "Never!" He snarled. "Until you stop feeding on kids' fear like the parasite you are, I'll never stop fighting you!"

The Boogeyman back-handed him across the face and Jack slumped in his bonds, momentarily stunned.

"Insignificant brat!" Pitch hissed, grabbing him by the hair and wrenching his head up so that he could look into his enemy's eyes. "You think fear is all this is about? Think again!" He let him go and Jack's head drooped, but forced his eyes to remain open. "Unlike you and your worthless friends, I did not remain idle these past years. No..." He stood up to his full height and, to Jack's horror and disbelief, his shadows seemed to expand in stature."I have grown. I thrived. I have found a great Power and ascended to a level well beyond any of you. Soon, even the Ancient Spirits will quiver."

Jack's eyes widened at the realisation that if he did not escape, something grave will definitely happen. His heart told him if he didn't, all people in that room would perish. He needed to get free, somehow!

Pitch turned his back on the boy, crossing the room to stand over the little girl who was still miraculously sleeping. With one outstretched hand he crushed the golden slivers of her dreams, grinning and wiping his hands on his robe in satisfaction.

"NO!" Jack screamed. Lily murmured something in her sleep and curled in on herself, as if trying to hide from something.

Pitch's grin sent shivers up Jack's spine. "You are pathetic Jack Frost." He hissed menacingly, keeping his gaze on the girl as his fingers trailed over her forehead. "Utterly pathetic. You can't even keep one small girl safe."

Jack sharply inhaled. He could remember a voice- not Pitch's, someone else's. A voice long, long ago speaking the same words to him. Not out of disgust, but anger.

You can't even keep one little girl safe can you? All you ever do is make trouble! Why can't you do anything right?!

Suddenly, Jack found himself thrashing violently against the dark bonds that held him. He writhed and kicked, icy tendrils leaking from his hands at an alarming rate only to be absorbed by the blackness. He felt his eyes blazing bright blue in the darkness, seeping with cold and as he screamed, icy breath escaped his throat, indicitave of all the pent-up power that was eventually going to be let loose. "GRAH!" He screamed, rolling his head back and letting out a blast of ice from his lips that froze the ceiling beams solid. "LET ME GO YOU DEMON! I SWEAR TO THE MOON IF YOU EVEN TOUCH HER I WILL FREEZE YOU IN ICE SO DEEP YOU'LL NEVER FEEL ANYTHING BUT A THOUSAND WINTER'S COLD!"

Pitch looked momentarily wary. He'd never seen this level of power emanating from a single spirit before- besides a certain recluse deadbeat moon lord, and for a moment he considered leaving without the girl. Then he shook his head. No, the boy even now was yet no match for him. Better to just get the job over now before he froze the whole house.

"Empty threats." He dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

Jack tilted his head sideways. Pitch noticed that he still had cold vapor dripping from his eyes and when he saw the youth grin, he thought- not for the first time, how much potential the boy had wasted in turning him down. Because right now, he looked very terrifying indeed. "Wanna bet?" He asked, giving a whole new level to the term cold.

Pitch shook his head regretfully. So much promise... "As I said, empty threats. Now, if you don't mind, I'll be taking my prize." He reached down and roughly grabbed the little girl by the back of the neck, jerking her out of her fitful sleep into the terrifying reality. Then he turned to look as Jack again. "Such a great pity." He murmured, savoring the look of mixed outrage and fear the graced the winter-boy's features. "How I would love to crush you myself Jack, and see your pitiful demise." He spoke softly, menacingly. "However," he continued, shaking the little girl who had started crying. "You should count your lucky stars. I'm rather...engaged today. Now stay there like a good boy and maybe I won't kill you the next time I see you Goodbye, Jack Frost. Pleasant nightmares."

...

A cry was rising in Jack's throat before he heard light footsteps, almost inaudible amidst the chaos.

Pitch whirled around to face the cause of the noise. Jack's gaze snapped to the door and his eyes widened as they both saw Lily's sister standing there, breathless and highly alarmed. Her eyes grew wide as she took in the scene before her, her mouth half open in bewilderment. Jack's thoughts could not be wilder. Can she see us?

The question was quickly answered as fury and rage overlapped the shock in the girl's eyes.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" her horrified scream almost ripped the air. In a blink, Lily's sister had lunged at Pitch, fist raised and poised like a leopard ready to pummel its prey.

In contrast, a thrilled smile flitted across Pitch's face - he knew something. He seemed oddly calm about the whole thing for his situation. He was faced with a furious girl whose sister he had by the throat and looked like she was about to beat his core out of him; while keeping him, Jack, contained was surely draining him massive amounts of energy. Why was he being so calm?!

"Oh? Another interesting distraction."

It's gotta be some kind of trap!

But before he could shout out a warning, shadowy limbs sprouted from the floor and entangled itself around Lily's sister's ankles. Losing momentum, she fell heavily onto the ground. Shadowy hands shot out from the floor and tied her down.

"There now," Pitch murmured. "That's much better."

Lily was crying terribly now. She wanted her sister desperately but could only cry and weakly wiggle. They were bound up one way or another. There was no escape.

Jack saw Lily's body glow. A golden rain formed around her and encircled her. Pitch's wicked laugh filled the air. A white brimming aura mingled with Lily's scream. In the next second all became quiet, and a single gemstone, glittering like rain in the moonlight, hit the floor with a cold sound.

Lily was gone.

It was as if time itself had frozen on the spot. There was no movement, not even from the Fearlings. Then Pitch let out triumphant, unbridled laugh.

"I did it. I DID IT! Hah, it's DONE!" his laughter twisted through the air, though he'd fallen onto one knee, looking worse for wear.

Lily's sister's anguished cry filled the air.

Suddenly, the entire room burst with a silver light like that of the moon. Light filled everything. Light lit up the mysterious gemstone on the hard floor. Light gently cradled Jack and Lily's sister's stricken form. Above all, light seemed to burn Pitch and cleanse all darkness.

"Curse you!" Pitch screamed, hissing and cringing like a vampire in the face of so much light. He withdrew himself into the closest shadow, appearing substance-less and using this to his advantage to flee out the window.

Jack, who had been thrown to the ground as the sand released him, saw Pitch's escape attempt.

"You're not getting away!" he seized his staff and took off after Pitch.

The night grew colder and colder as Pitch raced to outfox the furious winter-sprite. Maintaining his intangible form was difficult right now - drained as he was, but proved to be worth it as his enemy sent a veritable blizzard's worth of dagger-sharp ice and rock-hard balls of snow after him. They simply phased through him, shattering like fireworks with a sound of broken crystals and fell glittering towards the earth.

Pitch had disappeared into the shadows.

It was night in the town of Winston, and the streets were unoccupied. Landing on the cold tarmac road, Jack fervently scanned his surroundings for any sign of Pitch, but found nothing.

Not willing to admit defeat, he took to the air again and searched from the sky. But once Pitch wants to remain hidden, he isn't going to be found easily. From where he stood hovering in the sky with the night winds welcoming him, the only thing he found was a cold moon, gleaming silently in the sky.

Manny... the thought passed through Jack's mind, and he widened his eyes in realisation.

"The light from before...It was you! You saved us?" Jack muttered, gazing intently at the moon's shining silver face as if half-expecting an answer.

But there were none. In return it seemed to gaze back at Jack with never-ending patience and tranquility. Unspeaking, but not voiceless.

Jack sighed, throwing his arms up in exasperation.

Fine! I should get it by now that I'll never get you to talk.

Groaning and heavy at heart, Jack caught a wind and flew back. He arrived at the house and entered through the thrown-open window, his feet lightly touching the floor. Why did he come back? Simply put, guilt.

Lily's sister was lying on the ground, the exact place where Pitch's Nightmare had got to her, motionless. For a brief moment, Jack was worried if she was hurt. He knew he was still feeling the bruises and would be feeling them for a while yet. And he also knew humans bruised much more easily than spirits. Put two and two together and...

"Hey," he said, bending down to her in concern. "You okay?"

"Lily…" He heard an almost inaudible whisper and felt a twinge of guilt grip his heart. When she glanced up at him, he saw that her expression was as lifeless as her voice had been.

Unfortunately for him, it didn't last for long.

As she stared at him her numb expression turned into fleeting recognition, which was then quickly usurped by anger and accusation. Rising up instantly - When did humans get so fast? By Jove! - in a flash she sprang at him and yanked the front of Jack's blue hoodie.

"YOU!" She snarled. Her voice was heavy with breath and anger, as if she had just finished running a marathon and had come in second place.

"Whoa whoa, calm down!" Jack said on reflex, raising his hands in defense. "I-" Oh snowballs.

The art of calming women dictates that, telling one to calm down in the midst of anger will, in most cases, only piss them off. But Jack only realised this as she grabbed him by the hoodie and brought him - he was a bit taller than her, down to her eye level and said in a deadly voice. "Where... is... my sister?"

Jack forced himself to remain calm in the face of impending doom. He had been getting good at that lately.

"I don't know." He said as calmly as he could.

The girl clenched her fist and threw him brutally to the ground.

"Hey!" Jack objected but already she took a fistful of the hoodie again.

She was crouched down in front of him, one hand gripping his hoodie at the shoulder and a knee on the ground, like she was going to propose to him. Jack allowed a small smile to grace his lips as he pictured her kneeling in a tux.

The smile quickly vanished however, when he heard her speak.

"You're with him." She hissed in an accusing tone. "That man that-that thing who took my sister." Her voice broke a little, but instantly regained strength. Her eyes narrowed and she shook him violently. "There's a connection between you two. I know it! You're the same type. Tell me what you are, now!"

Jack tried not to feel insulted. Compared to Pitch. Ugh. "Easy now," he said slowly, trying to keep his voice as neutral as he could. "I know Pitch but I'm not 'with him' per se. And I'm definitely not like him. Yes we are the same thing- ish. We're spirits!"

She glared into his blue eyes, gauging them to find the lie that surely laid there. But somehow, even as her eyes burned into his, she couldn't find it.

Her grip slackened with slight hesitance, and her hands slumped a bit.

Jack leaned back against his arms, breathing a sigh of relief. It didn't look as though she was going to beat him. In all honesty, he was surprised that she trusted his word at all! Adults were notoriously mistrustful and, even though this girl was about a teenager in appearance, her mentality appeared to be too much like that of one.

Silence bloomed between them. The girl's gaze continued to jump from him to the window and Jack noticed that each time she looked in the window's direction her breathing became slightly hitched. Though her eyes were dry of tears that never fell, it sounded almost like she was softly crying. It felt painful to Jack.

"I'm sorry." Jack said after a while, not sure what else to say.

Her gaze fell on him, sharp and unblinking and still unreadable. "Sorry won't bring her back." she said distantly.

Jack nodded, feeling uneasy. "Right, sorry." He waited a few minutes before speaking again, this time with more fortitude. "I'll help you get her back, I promise. It's my fault she's gone in the first place and I swear to you I will find and make Pitch pay for everything."

She didn't seem to be paying any attention to his promises until he mentioned the part about Pitch. Then she looked up. "You said you knew him." It was a statement, not a question.

He nodded.

"Then where has he taken her? And don't lie to me," she warned, visibly clenching her fist before he could even open his mouth to speak. "you'll find I'm a lot less gentle than the police."

Jack had to fight hard to keep the smile that was so desperately wanting to escape onto his lips. She, against a Guardian? Didn't she know ordinary force can not win against spirits? That aside, he could just fly out of the reach of both her anger and fist and save them both the trouble.

Then he actually started thinking about her words. Where would Pitch go? To his home, that dingy little cave in the ground? Possibly. But he doubted it. That was the first place he and the Guardians would look. Thinking along those lines drew his thoughts along others. Why was Pitch here, at this particular place? And for that matter, why was he - why was Jack here? It was too convenient that a Guardian was already there when Pitch suddenly came along. Too convenient to be a coincidence. And what was that bright light? What did Pitch want with Lily? And why can her sister suddenly see him and Pitch?

"I don't know, but I think we have a pointer."

The girl raised her brows sceptically.

Jack glanced at the place where the jewel had fallen to the floor and swiftly went and picked up the glittering gem. Pitch had left it behind, and Jack somehow found it strange as he inspected it from all angles. Could this thing be what Pitch came for? Whichever the case, he should not leave the thing here. It might be useful in explaining Pitch's goal and whereabouts.

"What is that stone?" she suddenly asked. It seemed she had also caught the strange aura of the crystal.

"A clue," he stole a glance at where she was standing as still as a marble crafted statue. "To where Pitch and your sister might be."

Her stoic expression didn't change.

Jack glanced at her with sympathy. He wanted to help her, but there wasn't much time. He needed to go.

Raising his staff, he used the smaller end to draw an elegant snowflake in mid-air, reminiscent of the fern-patterns he left on windowsills. The giant snowflake hovered in the air for a second, then it began to glow in a shimmering blue before melting into a nice swirling portal that lead to the world of Guardians. Since becoming one himself, Jack had had his own means of travelling between the worlds. Immediately he headed for the portal, but he was suddenly pulled back by a demanding hand.

"Take me with you." She said solidly.

It was the last thing Jack expected. He blinked. "What?"

"You heard me." Her tone was as commanding as a military officer. "You're going somewhere. Take me with you."

"It's not a place you can follow. You'd better stay here." He gently pushed her back and made to fly off, but the firm hand on his wrist stopped him.

"Please." She gritted her teeth. A thousand reasons rose and trembled in his throat. He wanted to protest, but she caught him with her eyes. They were lit with a brightness, beautiful like the sea. Perhaps not in colour (although he couldn't be sure in the dim light), but in depth and power. A brilliant will.

Please...

And something in him gave way.

"Alright, then." He relented. Maybe he wasn't as calm and sensible as he thought. "But I can't guarantee what you'll see and hear once we got there."

She nodded, showing that she understood. Jack sighed. North's never going to let me hear the end of it... Maybe if she saw just how out of whack things are, she'll go home and be convinced this is all a dream, Jack thought with a glint of hope; trying to forget the fact that if she did, she'd find Lily gone and that the nightmare had been real.

"Take my hand." He instructed her, voice assured and firm. Her eyes fixed on his, and despite her mind's doubts she took his hand without hesitation. Vaguely, she noticed how soothing and cool it felt against hers.

Dreading one last time of how his fellow Guardians would react to his actions, Jack wrapped his arms around her shoulder and plunged them both into the icy depths of the portal. The next moment, the portal was gone.

.

.

.

Author's comment:

I missed dinner because I was so engrossed in writing this chapter. Now I'm really starving! But I hope you guys like it.

Reviewers get a hug from Jack. And lots of love for the holidays ;)

Next chapter: We arrive at North's Workshop. But you bet it's gonna be cool. And hopefully we can finally learn Lily's sister's name. It's getting annoying having to call her 'Lily's sister' over and over again.

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