The rhythmic sound of his feet pounding the asphalt echoed in Ethan's ears as he ran. The muscles in his legs burned, and every breath felt like knives through his lungs, but he still kept running. The warm summer sun beat down on him, almost accusingly. Ethan rushed across roads, causing cars to swerve and honk, dashed through arcades, upsetting a good deal of Burgess citizens and sprinted along sidewalks, weaving through throngs of pedestrians.
As he emerged from an alley onto a street he had never been to before, Ethan spotted a bicycle propped up against the wall of a bakery, unchained. He could see why the owner would have no qualms about leaving his bike in that manner, for the street was a long way away from central Burgess, and it was far quieter in those areas. Panting and puffing and clutching at his knees, Ethan glanced up and down the street. There were only two old ladies at one end, and pretty soon they disappeared around the corner.
Without thinking, Ethan grabbed the bike by the handles and wheeled it as fast as he could down the street, hoisting himself on. Planting his feet on the pedals, Ethan cycled a good four blocks away before getting off the bike. He leaned it against a wall, in full view of the road. No one driving or walking past would miss it. Hopefully the owner would think to look for it there. Ethan took off, and further down the block, he ducked into an alley.
For an alley in these parts of Burgess, it was surprisingly clean. The asphalt looked new and the bins and dumpsters were nearly empty. Ethan ran his fingers along the walls. Some new development, probably. He sank down onto a flight of steps leading from the back door of a house, and dropped his backpack onto the ground by his feet. Rest, at last.
"We should have dinner together tonight, with the others as well, I mean. I don't know if Jack will drop by, he hasn't been around much since you left, but I'm sure he'll be ecstatic that you're finally back. Oh wait, let me guess, you met him when you were away as well?"
"Nope. I told you I was taking a break from civilization. No winter spirits in that part of the forest, trust me," Jamie said, as the car rounded a corner, and their house came into view. "How's Mrs. Warren? Still the same? Still sane?"
Sophie made a face. "Well, she leaves the house more often now, thank goodness. Apparently, she attends a support group somewhere, for guardians-know-what. Oh, good, looks like she isn't home."
The car pulled into the garage. Sophie popped the trunk and as Jamie hefted his bags out, his sister hurried to the house. "Ethan! Do you mind lending a hand? Your uncle has two-years' worth of stuff to carry!"
Jamie glanced at the front door as he lifted his second suitcase out. The last time he had seen Ethan, the boy had been 15 years of age. Was he already 17? Jamie felt old.
Sophie turned and caught his eye. She was frowning, and that wasn't a good sign.
"He's gone," she said, biting her lip.
"Have you even checked?" Jamie asked, calmly. His vacation had left him feeling peaceful and tranquil, and not even Sophie could shatter that for now. "Perhaps he's hiding somewhere inside, thinking he can pop out and scare me when I walk in."
"He..." Sophie began, but finally stepped into the house, calling out for her son. Jamie returned to the car and lifted out the last few of his bags. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something glinting in the sunlight.
Shards of glass were caught in the bush underneath the living room window. Jamie tentatively picked up one of them and let his gaze trail up the wall, to a window on the second floor- his mother's bedroom. Or, since recent years, his nephew's. A large hole gaped in the glass.
Sophie came running up, a little breathless. "The room door's locked."
Jamie held up the shard of glass and pointed up at the window. "A robbery? Is everything in order in the house?"
Sophie frowned as she approached the bush. "Everything's fine. And I remembered turning on the alarms before I left. And that window... it was supposed to be hard to break."
It was Jamie's turn to frown. "Since when did you install alarms? And change the windows?"
Sophie gestured towards the house. "Well, Ethan stayed home a lot. But he doesn't know how to disable the alarms." She pressed her lips together. "I need to call the others."
As Sophie left, Jamie glanced up at the broken window again, and back at the bush. It was a sheer drop. Jamie peered closely at the window sills, and his eyes picked up on footprints.
Ethan rummaged through his backpack. It was time to throw some things out; it was getting too heavy.
He pulled out a scouting badge and set it aside on the stone steps. A few medals for races and marathons in school. A stuffed bear his uncle had given him. When he was younger, Uncle Jamie had set out his old toys and allowed Ethan to have whichever he wanted. Ethan had selected an old rabbit, but his uncle had been unwilling to part with it.
"Anything but this one. Sorry, but it's pretty sentimental."
Ethan set the bear aside and pulled out a handful of granola bars. He pulled out a box of odds and ends. Next came a thick, leather-bound book. It probably contributed sixty percent to the weight he had to carry, but Ethan knew the book was a lifesaver. It had been a present from Santa himself, after, as a child, he couldn't stop admiring the guardian's inventions and begged Santa to teach him even a minuscule part of the craft.
Ethan knew Jack Frost was his Uncle Jamie's most beloved, and the Easter Bunny his mother's, but out of all the guardians, he thought North as the most awesome of them all. There was something about the bearded guardian that Ethan liked, how he was both intimidating and fatherly at the same time, his hands which were almost as large as Jack Frost's face, but could create toys and sculptures and models refined with details. His workshop was one heck of a place as well. And don't even get him started on the delivery of presents each year...
"Santa has the best shipping and delivery service ever! Even mom's Express Delivery from Amazon takes twice the time. Does he operate on days other than Christmas? I wouldn't mind paying a shipping fee," he had once said to the other guardians.
Ethan set aside the book and continued rummaging through his backpack. In a small pocket he had cut into the side of the bag, Ethan had stuffed a wad of cash. A small part belonged to his mother, which he had taken without her knowledge when he left the house through the window that morning. Another part were his savings and the remainder had been earned through small cons and scams. Well, at least Ethan saw them as such. The people he had sold his tiny crafts and inventions to probably hadn't yet realised they had been ripped off. Or perhaps they already knew from the start, and it had just been his beggarly act. He did earn a small portion from his ventriloquist acts which he had learned from Uncle Jamie's friends.
Ethan repacked his stuff, reluctantly deciding he would leave out his scouting badge and medals. As the day darkened, he couldn't help thinking of his mother and uncle. Uncle Jamie was surely back from his trip, and was this how he was to welcome him home? By disappearing? His mother, without a doubt, would be worried sick, but after all, she was the one who started everything...
Ethan's stomach grumbled. He reluctantly reached into his bag for a granola bar.
Bacon and fries, his stomach seemed to say. With chocolate ice-cream for dessert.
Ethan hoisted his bag onto his shoulder and left the alley, dumping his badge and medals into a bin on the way out. Against the background of the darkening sky, he spotted a neon diner sign.
The diner with its checkered floor and retro bars was just like the streets and neighbourhood; it was almost deserted. The only other patrons were a young couple and a middle-aged man who pored over a newspaper. The waitress hummed as she rested in a corner, reading a magazine.
Ethan selected a booth in a dim corner, and flopped onto the seat. The waitress ambled over, took his order, and left.
Trying not to look conspicuous, Ethan surveyed the other patrons. The middle-aged man was just about to leave, rolling up his newspaper and draining the last of his coffee. A little while later, after his bacon cheeseburger had arrived, the young couple got up and left as well. The waitress was nowhere in sight, probably somewhere in the back of the diner, as Ethan could still hear a faint humming.
The temperature plummeted without warning. At first Ethan thought he might bump into the winter spirit, but this was a different type of chill. While Ethan had always likened Jack's chill with crisp winter days, this one reminded him of cold, dark tunnels. Ethan couldn't hear the waitress's humming any longer, and the music playing over the speakers suddenly seemed dark and foreboding.
Ethan's attention was drawn to the presence of a hooded man in the seat across from him. His heart did a somersault; he had not seen or heard the man enter and slide into his booth.
"Who are you?" he asked, his brows drawing together. He couldn't see the man's face beneath his hood.
The man reached up and drew back the black hood. As Ethan glanced upon the pale, gaunt face that looked like it belonged in a nightmare, goosebumps rose on his arms. He bit back a scream as his pulse accelerated.
He had seen that face before. Never in real life, though, only in a book.
Ethan answered his own question. "Pitch Black."