The night was dark.
As I crept along the narrow street, I could feel my heart beating in my chest, the rhythm slightly faster than usual. Small pools of water settled in-between the dips and rises of the stone cobbles - reflecting the light of the moon so they sparkled like diamonds dancing in the wind. My foot slipped into one and the splashing sound echoed around us.
“Keep it down.” Orion hissed at me, looking back to scowl and then turning forwards again. We crept onwards, my hand running idly along the building walls, feeling the smooth, cold texture underneath. I only ever walked through this street at night. I had never seen the decorative banners drawn above us alive with colour, felt the heat of the sun radiating off the stones against my fingertips. But I preferred it that way.
We reached the building we had been heading for. Orion brought up the deep hood of his jacket and drew it over his head. I did the same, enveloping my peripheral vision in darkness. As we crouched by the doorway he examined it carefully. I looked up and saw the sign above, swinging in the slight breeze. Storehouse.
“It’s padlocked.” Glancing back down I saw him looking at me expectantly. In his hand was a fairly large padlock, a poor attempt at keeping us away.
“Well go on then!” He hissed at me again. I got the signal and rubbed my hands together, feeling the warmth build as I summoned it from within.
Suddenly light appeared from my fingertips. It was dim at first, but as I focused it grew stronger and stronger. Concentrating on the arm of the padlock, I thought of hot things, fire, steam, a branding iron. The light from my fingers turned red. Orion smiled as the padlock glowed. Slowly my light burnt through it, turning the weak metal into liquid, sending it tumbling to the floor in little droplets. Eventually Orion dropped the padlock entirely, the remnants scattering away with little pinging sounds that echoed around us.
As quickly as we had broken into it we entered the store. With the upcoming festivals, it had been stocked high, sacks and baskets towering up above us. As I stared in wonder at the variety of fruits and vegetables, Orion hit me on the head, scowling again.
“What? Have you never seen food before? Grab some before we get caught!” Quickly reverting back to reality I wiped my hands on my jacket, opening up the pockets and rapidly shoving things inside them. We had no time to be picky, but I did waste a little stretching up for a large orange balanced at the top of a huge pile.
“You got enough?” Orion asked after a while. I turned to look at him, seeing his huge figure now made even more alarming by the vast quantities of food stuffed inside his clothing. It was almost comical.
“I think so.” As we danced out of the pillaged store, I took one last look behind me at the food that remained, wondering what the Daylighters would think when they came here the next morning.
“Come on.” Orion said, stepping out into the street and waving me onwards, his impatience showing again. “Let’s go.”
The sun was beginning to peep over the horizon when we reached home again. My feet were tired from the running and my body sagging. The tall wooden walls of the compound stretched upwards into the lightening sky, rickety but somehow still standing even after nearly twenty years. As we reached the main door Orion knocked four times, two hard, two soft. The peeping slot opened and a small boy poked his eyes through.
“Who goes there?” He asked, his young voice high pitched, but trying to sound confident.
“It’s me you idiot.” Orion replied. As the boy babbled apologies and rushed to open the door, I laughed, seeing my co-worker doing the same.
“Orion, Leo, it’s so good to see you!” He gushed once we could see him. He was still very short, only a small boy of twelve, but his manner was alive with enthusiasm and he had spirit in him. When Crux had picked him up he had barely been able to lift his own head.
“You too Dorado.” I said, ruffling his hair and tossing him an apple from my pocket as we passed. Orion strode on forward, heading to the main square and not acknowledging anyone else.
There were only a few people milling around the courtyard, the large flat space almost deserted, but when they saw Orion approaching they called to each other in hushed voices.
“Orion is here! The final runners have returned!” Soon a huge crowd had gathered. Orion began to strut, his short curly hair bouncing as he walked. As he drew closer he opened up his arms so the inside of his jacket was clearly visible.
“Grubs up!” He exclaimed. The food was scattered across the floor, rolling for moments in the dirt before the people dived down, scrambling for it. Orion stepped back laughing, but I frowned. True, we were scavengers, the worst kind, but we didn’t fight over our spoils. A couple of the outliers noticed me, standing back in the fringes.
“Leo?” They asked, hopefully. I smiled, reaching inside my jacket and pulling out more apples, which I threw to them.
“Silence!” Suddenly the courtyard hushed. Crowds parted to let Crux walk through to the centre. A tall, menacing figure, he dominated every landscape he found himself in. Everything about his body was thick, from his round belly to his wide stocky neck, even his fingers were like fat sausages. His face was old and ugly, but there was knowledge in his eyes. Knowledge and experience.
“We do not squabble over food!” He bellowed, scolding all the people sprawled out across the floor, fingernails wedged into sections of the same piece of fruit. A few of them trembled, bowing their heads at his feet. “We SHARE it!” Immediately everyone dropped what they had been holding. Crux picked up a discarded carrot and took a large bite from it, the crunching of his teeth like he was eating bones.
“Orion.” he said, looking up to my co-worker. For a minute I wondered if he were about to discipline him, before I remembered that Orion was his favourite. “Where did you get this food?” He asked.
“From one of the stores.” Orion replied smugly. “They’re piling them high for their stupid summer solstice. They even tried to padlock it, but we got through that in no time.” As he signalled in my direction, suddenly I saw the eyes of our leader fixed upon me. My insides trembled, but I stood firm.
“Was it really that easy?” Crux asked, seeming a little amused. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Excellent! We shall eat well tonight!” The crowds cheered. As Crux established order and the people ordered themselves into rows, I walked up to the front to get rid of my spoils.
“Do you not want any?” Dorado asked me, looking puzzled as I began to head off towards the sleeping area. I shook my head, smiling.
The sky was pink as I reached my sleeping quarters. I stopped for a second to look at the sunrise - something I had seen a thousand times before but never seemed to tire of. Then I ducked my head and stepped into the room.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the light, but when I did I saw the faint outlines of four beds. Three of them were empty, but one was occupied.
“Pssst!” I whispered, stepping forward and prodding the lump under the covers. “Cassie! You awake?”
“I am now you asshole.” The lump rolled over and Cassie’s face was revealed. Her brown eyes still seemed tired and her complexion was pale, her hair tied back into a tight ponytail so it stretched the skin of her temples. “What do you want.” She asked apathetically, although I could tell she was happy to see me.
“Need a bit of vitamin C?” I replied. As my hand delved into my pocket and brought out the orange, Cassie’s expression lit up.
“Leo!” I grinned, bundling myself onto her bed and rummaging around the shelves for the knife she always kept close by. When I found it Cassie had pulled herself up to a sitting position, propping herself up with her pillow.
“I can’t believe you got one.” She said, obviously touched. Apart from needing the vitamins to recover from her illness, oranges were Cassie’s favourite fruit. As I sunk the knife past the tough skin and into the soft flesh of the orange, juice spurted out into my face. I laughed, holding the fruit up above my head and catching the drops that fell afterwards.
“Man that tastes good.” I said.
“Well come on! Hand some over!” Slicing it in half, I handed Cassie one of the pieces, seeing her dig her teeth eagerly into the flesh and rip some out. Vela had told me stories of our ancestors using cutlery to eat, the ladies dabbing their mouths with handkerchiefs to avoid any mess - Cassie would have made their eyes bulge out of their sockets. But every other girl in the colony was pretty much the same.
“Holy hell!” She exclaimed, her eyes widening as she swallowed and took in the juices. “This is amazing!”
“I know.” I sucked on my own orange half, watching happily as the colour returned to her face. We didn’t get to eat much here, but when we did, we enjoyed it.
“How are you feeling?” I asked after a while. Cassie wrinkled her nose, not wanting to answer the question.
“Better.” She said not sounding like she meant it. “I mean, better than I was.” It was easy to steal food from the Daylighters, but medicine was a trickier story. We normally had to make do with the herbal remedies Vela provided.
“You seem better.” I added, trying to sound positive. Cassie sighed, letting her hand drop to her lap despondently,
“I wanna be out there again. Like you.” She said. “But they’ll never let me go.” With the recent events, our running teams had been cut down to twos - minimising the risk. Only the strongest were allowed outside the walls and into enemy territory. Cassie was smart, and quick, but she had been quickly sidelined in favour of others, something she still hadn’t gotten over.
“You might have to.” I replied, tossing my empty orange skin to the side. “That store we found today was piled high. We could have enough food to feed us all for a week if we hit it right.” My friend’s eyes lit up.
“Really? It was that full?”
“Yeah. To the roof.”
“Orion must have had a field day.” I laughed, running my fingers through my hair and shaking my head.
“Nah. He was just his usual insolent self.” Suddenly Cassie inched closer. I could tell she was still tired, her illness not quite out of her body yet. As she shuffled towards me I lifted up my arm and let it rest around her shoulders.
“I bet they’ll summon a whole load of us tomorrow.” I murmured, feeling my own tiredness begin to creep over me as I let our heads rest lightly together. “You too.”
“That would be good.” Cassie replied. Her eyelids drooped, muscles relaxing as she dropped down her guards and finally rested. I brushed my thumb over her collarbone, watching her until my own eyelids became heavy and closed.
I wasn’t sure what time it was when I awoke, but it was getting dark. The only light in our room was the stark oil lamp that burned by Cassie’s bed. If it was lit, then someone else must have been inside.
“Hey! Leo!” As I opened my eyes groggily I saw in front of me the faces of the two other people that shared our quarters. Scorpius was tall and thin, his bright red hair like a torch of his own. Aquila was dark haired and slightly more stocky, but just as fast.
“Mmmn?” I replied, still not completely conscious. From the looks on their faces, something was amusing them.
“Have a nice sleep?” Finally awakening enough to take in my surroundings, I looked to my left and realised that I had fallen asleep in Cassie’s bed. She was still out, her face peaceful and serene as she breathed evenly, arms and legs intertwined with mine and her cheek resting against my chest.
“Aaah!” I lurched backwards, almost waking her, and sending the other boys into fits of hushed laughter. As I quickly moved to untangle myself and jump to my feet, Aquila flashed me a knowing smile.
“That looked pretty comfy.” He said, grinning from ear to ear.
“It wasn’t what it looked like.” I replied, feeling my face turning pink from embarrassment.
“Whatever you say.” I pulled on my shoes and ran my fingers through my long hair, cursing myself for my indiscretion. Crux didn’t have any policy on girls and boys sharing beds or sleeping quarters, but I didn’t want rumours to be spread around.
“What time is it?” I asked, wanting to change the subject. Aquila pointed outside at the setting sun.
“Nearly 9. Time to get moving.” My two friends moved to the door, obviously looking to leave. I glanced back at Cassie, seeing how peaceful she was, but also knowing that she would kill me if I didn’t wake her for the summoning.
“One second.” Padding back over I crouched down and lightly shook her shoulder.
“Cassie.” To my dismay, as she stirred, her arms reached out, as if expecting me to still be there beside her. When she felt nothing, she turned and looked at me, confusion on her face.
“We’re going to the summoning.” I said, hearing the sniggering of Scorpius and Aquila behind me. “Are you coming?” Cassie nodded, beginning to right herself. I moved quickly away to the door, suddenly feeling guilty for some reason.
“We’ll meet you there.” Before my friend had any time to reply, I stepped out into the crisp air.
A stream of people had begun to develop, all heading towards the main square. I strode on forward, Scorpius having to jog to catch up with me and Aquila only a few steps behind.
“Hey dude!” The former called out, reaching out his hand to grab my shoulder and stop me. I turned round sharply, not really sure why I was angry.
“Slow down! Some of us don’t have a bug up their butt.” I scowled, turning away but hearing him laugh at his own joke behind me.
“So what’s up with you and Cassie?” Aquila asked. I turned around again, only to fiercely protest my innocence.
“Nothing is up with us.”
“Didn’t look like it.” Scorpius interjected. My frown deepened.
“We’ve been friends for years!”
“That doesn’t mean something can’t happen. It looks like she wants it to.” I shook my head, turning back forwards again. This was stupid. I had been three when Cassie had been brought into the colony. She had been covered in dirt and sores, left on the street to die. Crux had taken her in and Vela had laid her in the bed beside mine. We had been together ever since.
“So you’re not…interested?” Scorpius jogged up beside me again. When I looked at him the expression on his face was hopeful.
“No. Not in…that way.” I replied. The red-headed boy smiled, suddenly seeming pleased about something.
“Can I step in then?” Confusion spread across my face. Aquila yelled out in excitement.
“Yes! You and Cassie would be great together! I wonder what she’d look like with all those clothes off…” The two boys hi-fived, laughing together. Suddenly I stopped.
“Guys!” Immediately they halted, looking at me nervously. “She’s not a piece of meat.” I continued, feeling somewhat protective. “She’s our sister.” Aquila and Scorpius exchanged looks.
“If she’s my sister…” Scorpius replied. “Then I have some serious problems!” As the pair resumed their laughter and tomfoolery I shook my head, focusing on the square ahead of us again. It wasn’t as if I had never thought about it - Cassie was a kind and interesting girl, not to mention the beauty that grew in her every day. But somehow, despite how close we were, to take that extra just seemed like breaching a barrier, like it was wrong. I dug my fingernail into my palm, trying to think about something else.
When we reached the main square it was already filled with people. In the low light everyone’s clothing looked pretty much the same, but we were all split into different groups. The children and those not well enough to work wore grey. The older Darklighters wore brown, the elders purple. And the runners wore black. I pulled my black jacket closer around me, guarding from the wind that had begun to pick up and whistle around us.
“Fellow Darklighters!” Suddenly Crux’s voice boomed out. I couldn’t see where he was, but then the crowds parted and he appeared. As our leader he was the only one to wear more than one colour - brown for his age and black for his job. I felt pity for any Daylighter that encountered him on a run, doubtless they left such rendezvous missing a part of their anatomy.
“The night is upon us, the time where we are strongest!” The crowds cheered. I had never really bought into the myth that a Darklighters power was strongest at night - to me it seemed simply more logical to go on runs under cover, when most Daylighter stores were left unguarded.
“The Daylighters celebrate the summer, but the longer nights draw near!” More cheers. Suddenly I noticed Cassie appear from the fringes - she headed towards me, but suddenly Scorpius’ arm jerked out and gently grabbed hold of her.
“Stand with us Cassie.” He whispered, slipping his arm around her shoulder. I watched her glance over at me, eyes searching for some kind of explanation, even to be saved. But I simply shrugged my shoulders and turned away, trying to rid myself of the irritated feeling coursing through my veins.
“Our runs yesterday were profitable, Orion tells us that the stores are packed high for the Daylighter’s Summer Solstice.” My eyes searched the crowds for Orion. He wasn’t hard to pick out, standing close to Crux, his smugness radiating out over the first few rows of people. “For this reason, I ask that we send out triple the runners today.” Triple? Hushed whispers rang out. Crux had never sent groups of six out together before. It was risky.
“I understand your hesitation.” He continued, still not showing any signs of wavering, despite the unrest of his people. “But if we are to profit from this time, we need to strike now. The guarding of these stores has been poor, but we do not know what the Daylighters will develop in the coming weeks. To be cautious now is to risk the safety of this community in months to come.” Now the whispers seemed more positive. Crux was right - the Daylighters had begun to develop. We had only lost a few runners, but we couldn’t afford any more if we wanted to keep our bellies full and our own future secure.
“I ask now these runners to step forward for the first outing of the night.” Crux brought out a list. Everyone not dressed in black turned towards us, waiting to hear who would be selected.
“Aries, Auriga, Cassiopeia…” Suddenly Cassie let out a squeal of excitement. She grabbed hold of Scorpius, jumping up and down and grinning from ear to ear. “…Cepheus, Gemini, Volans.” I smiled. Cassie had been selected again. I imagined Crux had been feeling a little generous, along with the huge increase of numbers needed for the runs. But she had made it all the same.
“For the second run…” Another list of names were read out. Each group would go out at different times during the night, the most profitable after midnight. I saw Cassie look over at me, a huge smile still plastered across her face, but also waiting for my name.
“And the final group…” Crux unravelled his list to the final part. “Chamaeleon, Lacerta, Leo, Lyra, Orion, Scorpius.” Relief flowed through me. It had been expected that I would be in the final group, but you never knew with Crux. As the crowds cheered Orion smirked, waving his hand like a royal and lapping up the applause. Scorpius rushed over to me, slapping me on the shoulder and dragging Cassie with him.
“Dude! We’re runner buddies!” I laughed at his enthusiasm, averting my attention to Cassie, who looked a little squished against his side, but was smiling warmly at me.
“Well done.” I said, quietly so nobody else could hear. I reached out my hand to take hers, but Scorpius moved and without realising pulled her away.
“Come on! We have runs to prepare for!”
Twenty minutes later I walked towards the main door, Scorpius in tow behind me. The first six runners were about to leave. All of them already had their hoods up, due to the fact the sun was still peeking out from the horizon. I quickly singled Cassie out from her posture and rushed over, lifting up her hood so she looked at me in surprise, then smiled.
“Good luck out there.” I said softly, suddenly feeling something inside of me that I couldn’t explain. “I won’t be here when you get back.”
“We’ll see who gets the biggest stash.” She teased back. I was about to say something else, when Scorpius suddenly pushed me aside, looking like he wanted to say something.
“Cassie…” He said. For a second he looked almost nervous. “When we get back…tomorrow maybe…do you wanna…watch the sunrise?” Cassie seemed confused.
“But we’ll be running at sunrise.”
“Well sunset then.” Scorpius changed. It was funny how quickly his bravado had disappeared, replaced instead with a tapping foot and the twitch of his head. For a second Cassie looked deep in thought, trying to process what he was asking. Then it clicked.
“Oh…” Suddenly her eyes flicked to me. I tried to look away, but it was hard, hard trying not to show what I really thought. “I…”
“Cassie! We’re going!” Auriga called out, sounding impatient. The other runners had already made it out of the door, so Cassie quickly turned back to us, suddenly smiling.
“We’ll see.” As the door closed behind them, Scorpius turned to look at me, a breathless look on his face.
“Man.” He said. “What a girl.”
It didn’t take me long to get ready for a run. I had repeated the process so many times that the routine was seared into my brain, almost so I didn’t even have to think about it. I remembered my first run like it was yesterday - I had been only sixteen. Crux had sent me out with Taurus and Andromeda, runners now too old to come out with us anymore. My heart had beaten faster than I’d ever thought possible, but my small and agile figure had made it easy to sneak into the store and cram my pockets. My light powers had seemingly developed faster than everyone else’s, so I was quickly promoted up to the final run. Ever since Crux had cut the running teams down to twos a year or so ago, Orion and I had been the finishing duo.
As the sun set and the night turned dark, I ate my small supply of rations and tried not to think of Cassie, about what she was doing now. I hoped she was safe, that her health had not failed her. The way she was though, I figured the run would probably boost her stamina, not lessen it. Aquila had been sent on the second run, so I was alone in our quarters. Scorpius hadn’t shut up about his conversation earlier that night, so I had quietly excused myself from it. Laying down on my bed, I tried to shut off the part of my brain that wouldn’t stop nagging me. Where had all this come from? A few days earlier Cassie had been just a friend, my best friend. But a few words from Scorpius and suddenly… Maybe I didn’t want him trying anything with her. Rolling over, I scolded myself for even thinking about it. I was supposed to be getting ready for my run, not thinking about girls. Looking to distract myself, I held out my hand and focused. The light appeared at my fingertips, glowing brighter and brighter until it lit up the whole room. As I thought about different things, slowly it changed colour, from red, to blue, to yellow. I had tried before to get green light, but apparently that was impossible. The only people that could do that had died out long ago. As I focused my light on blue, I held it up against my arm, feeling the cold and shivering. Blue light was used very rarely on runs - it mainly served it purpose when healing. Vela had used her blue light countless times on me. I poured my energy into the light, holding my hand out in front of me and watching it build, brighter and brighter. As I brought up my other hand the light spread in between them both and I twisted and moulded it, trying to create a shape. When I eventually created some kind of ball, I concentrated on trying to let it go, push it away slowly. The light undulated and buzzed, but stayed put.
“Come on…” I mumbled to myself. Focusing even harder I willed it to leave, to drift slowly across the room. My focus built into frustration and then suddenly, without even realising it, I let go. The ball of light shot out, pinging off the wall and then crashing into a bucket by Aquila’s bed. Oops. Shaking my hands to try and remove any kind of evidence, I quickly jumped to my feet and moved towards the door.
The air was crisp and brisk outside. The cold was something I was used to now, nipping at my ankles like a playful pet. As I ran my hands through my hair and walked slowly towards the gate, Orion was already waiting - always raring to go. He had a small crowd of fans around him and as I approached I caught snatches of their conversation.
“Is it scary out there?”
“Have you ever seen a Daylighter?”
“Are they like everyone says?” Orion would always laugh off these questions. In truth we had only ever seen Daylighters from a distance - at the end of the street as we ran away and they cursed us, or through windows. Nobody that ever came in close proximity of our enemy ever made it out alive. When my footsteps became audible and I reached the group, a couple of them turned to look at me.
“Leo!” One of them called out. She was a young girl, only just thirteen. “Orion is telling us about Outside.” The way she spoke the word with such reverence made me smile. Children were never allowed outside the gate - Crux wouldn’t permit it. Once we were sixteen we could choose and be trained for our role, but until then we were under his control. He decided our fate.
“I’m sure he has many tales.” I replied, a little sarcastically. Orion scowled at me yet again, but suddenly his expression changed. I wondered if Crux was approaching and immediately turned around, but to my surprise someone different was making their way over. At a little under six feet, she was an imposing figure. Whilst nowhere near as bulky as Orion, she still exuded confidence and experience, her skin tough and weathered from many trips outside the gate, but still amazingly pale in the moonlight. Her long blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail, pulled taught just like her lips - a faint smirk drifting across them.
“Embellished tales I’m sure.” Everyone fell silent as she glided towards us. The few times I had been out with her I had often tried to listen for her footsteps, but had never heard them.
“Lyra.” Orion said meekly. The change of tone in his voice was unbelievable. His posture shrunk, his puffed out chest collapsing and his shoulders hunching as his face flushed red. Lyra was the only person I had ever seen that could do that to my running partner.
“When will you ever learn, Orion.” She replied, her voice laden with condescension. I snorted and Orion’s eyes flicked in my direction, obviously annoyed. Realising that his followers were staring at him he tried to regain his confidence, standing upright again and setting his face.
“You look, severe tonight.” He said, also using it as an excuse to look her up and down. Lyra cocked her head to the side.
“I’m here to do my job, not look pretty for you.” As Orion blushed again I bit my lip, trying not to let my sheer delight show. This was pure gold.
“Where are the others?” Lyra asked after a short pause. I saw her glance at me briefly, simply registering my attendance. “They should be here by now.” As if on cue Scorpius suddenly appeared in the distance. He was running and seemed out of breath when he reached us.
“Sorry.” He breathed, coming to stand next to me. I could see the beads of sweat trickling down the side of his forehead. “Couldn’t find my boots.”
“Is this the best Crux could find?” Lyra complained, sticking her arm out in the direction of my friend, who seemed a little offended. “And where are Chameleon and Lacerate?”
“On their way.” Now everyone fell silent. Crux took a few more steps forward, smiling as he saw the look on our faces. Lyra bowed her head, seeming apologetic. Even she knew when to tow the line.
“It seems the previous missions have been successful.” My head jerked upwards, hope filling my heart. That meant Cassie was ok. “When you return we shall eat heartily.”
“Are we to hit the same store?” Lyra asked.
“Yes. You and Orion are to go on ahead, Lacerta and Leo will break the locks. Scorpius and Chameleon should bring up the rear.” Scorpius’ face fell. I guess he had assumed he would he paired with me.
“But Chameleon never says anything…” He muttered under his breath. Before he had even finished, Crux turned and looked behind him. The two twins were approaching from the distance, making no haste to catch up with us. Whilst not completely identical, their sibling resemblance was clear. Chameleon was the slightly taller of the two, tattoos winding and swooping their way round his body, creeping out of his clothes. Lacerta’s long hair was darker, but they both shared the gaunt, sharp facial features. Unconsciously I shivered.
“Chameleon, Lacerta.” Crux said when they arrived, smiling. Neither of the pair made any reply. Ever since their entry into the Darklighter camp, nobody had ever heard them speak a word. Rumours spread around like wildfire, particularly amongst the children. When I had been a young boy I had heard that they had been child slaves to a Daylighter, their mother sick and unable to free herself from the toxic relationship. Beaten every day, they had fought to stay alive, until during the Battle of the Thousand, their mother had passed away. No longer tied to their master, Chameleon had grabbed a kitchen knife, stabbed him in the heart, and taken his sister out with him onto the streets. They had been seven at the time. Scorpius had always maintained that the emotionless man’s tattoos were trophies, of people he had killed and battles he had won. I saw them as covers for the scars.
“About time.” Lyra said sarcastically when they finally arrived. Chameleon simply looked at her for a brief second, before turning to Crux. Lacerta stood beside him, her lips pursed in concentration.
“The final group are just on their way back. You may pass them as you make your way towards the city, but make haste. The sun is almost rising.” Our leader cast his hand towards the skyline - I looked towards it and thought about the sunrise, how it meant the end of our day and the start of the Daylighters’.
“Do not disappoint me.”
We set off at a quick pace. Despite the relative maturity of our group, everyone was fit and fast. Lyra and Orion immediately raced on, already in competition with each other. Lacerta slotted into her place beside me, but made no effort to communicate or even acknowledge my presence. I didn’t mind. Our feet trapped against the hard ground in unison, the earth turning from dusty dry ground to wet soil and grass before too long.
“Do you think Cassie will go for me?” As we reached the outer walls of the Daylighter city Scorpius piped up behind me. My heart sank, not only because he was disturbing the relative peace of the journey.
“I dunno, probably.” I replied, not really paying attention. Lyra and Orion had already reached the stone, searching with their hands for a good foothold.
“I mean, she’s a stone cold fox - those eyes and that cute little body.” As my co-workers began to climb I picked up my pace, eager to join them and escape.
“I’m surprised she even talked to me to be honest, but I mean wow.” My hands touched the cold hard stone. Frustration was biting through me, but I ignored it and instead hauled myself upwards.
“If I could just get one night alone with her…” Finally my patience was broken.
“Scorpius! We are on a mission!” Still down on the ground, my friend stared back at me, a little surprised. Chameleon stood beside him, saying nothing, but obviously just as relieved as me that I had intervened. I knew I should probably say something else, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, so simply turned back round and carried on climbing.
The walls to the Daylighter city weren’t that high. The Battle of the Thousand had been nearly twenty years ago, and they hadn’t had an attack threat since. Some of them had begun to crumble, the stone coming away in your fingers. We had worked out the best places to climb, the places that weren’t guarded. As I hauled myself higher and higher I glanced behind me at the moon, shining bright onto the wall a few hundred metres away. We also knew how to disappear into the shadows. Nobody ever saw us.
My hands scrabbled for the top of the wall. Shifting my whole body over it, I sat for a second, staring out over the city. It really was beautiful. Buildings towered over each other, ornate carvings etched into their walls and turrets. I knew I should resent the nation that had rejected and exiled us, but once in a while I could appreciate their artwork.
“Leo!” A voice hissed out at me. When I looked down I saw Orion, hanging off the wall as he scrambled down it. “Come on!”
We dropped silently to the streets. Nobody was around, but I could hear distant noises echoing round the vicinity.
“They’re still up.” Orion muttered to himself. Lyra had already pressed on, so we followed her, Scorpius and Chameleon dropping down behind us as we moved. My breathing was shallow as we moved, posture low, ready to strike or run at any point. I held my hands up and focused my thoughts on my light and the job ahead of us.
Silently we moved through the same route. I was sure I had done it so many times now I had memorised it. Every turn seemed familiar, even in the low light. We stalked our prey, watching and waiting for any sign of danger. As I watched the silent figure of Lacerta in front of me, I heard Scorpius catching up. He was noisier than the rest of us, less experienced. Chameleon was further back, but almost impossible to detect. Even though we were all named after constellations, his name fit especially, due to the fact he could blend in pretty much anywhere. Normally on a job it was easier to just assume he was there.
I focused my attention back forward. We were nearly there now, only a few streets away. The noise from before had grown louder, shouts and cheers, music tinkling through the air. It seemed that the Daylighter Summer Solstice celebrations were beginning to come to an end, the daytimes drawing shorter. I danced around a drain, looking down for a second at the blackness of the sewers beneath, before suddenly I looked up and found Lacerta right in front of me.
“Woah.” I almost crashed straight into her. The stop had been so sudden that my body weight toppled forward, almost overbalancing completely, but managing to regain myself at the last minute. Scorpius wasn’t as agile. His weight smashed into me, making my hand dart out to grab hold of a vine sprouting from the wall in order to avoid a full on domino effect.
“Watch it!” Turning round with anger in my expression I saw his apologetic face, but still glared at him. There had been no explanation as to why we had suddenly halted, Lacerta offering no information. So I stepped out of the line to look forward.
“Orion?” My running partner didn’t answer. Him and Lyra seemed to be crouched over something, deep in conversation. When we were still there a few minutes later I decided to come over.
“What’s going on?” As I approached I saw the item they were discussing was on the floor. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but it looked like some kind of mechanical device.
“How do we deactivate it?” Lyra hadn’t noticed my approach - when she did her expression faltered and looked annoyed.
“Leo, get back to your position.” She snapped. Orion nodded his head, too focused on what was in front of us to pay real attention.
“Keep watch, check the perimeter.” Frustrated myself, I turned away and stalked back to the rest of the group.
“What’s happening?” Scorpius asked as I approached. He had picked up a stone from the floor and was throwing and catching it in one hand casually.
“There’s some kind of trap up ahead.” I replied. “Orion and Lyra are trying to work out how to deactivate it. They said to keep watch.” At the words Lacerta and Chameleon slinked off together towards the other side of the street, locking themselves in a silent conversation that we didn’t understand. I was left with Scorpius.
“What kind of trap was it?” He asked again, sounding curious.
“I don’t know.” It was unusual for the Daylighters to leave things like that out for us - normally they just relied on their paltry guards. They must have been learning.
“Do you think we can help?” As Scorpius stepped forward I immediately placed a hand on his chest, blocking the way.
“No. believe me Orion doesn’t want any company right now.” Scorpius sighed, leaning against the wall and beginning to throw and catch his rock again. It was strange to think that I had once been like this, unexperienced and impatient. When you first became a runner all you wanted to do was explore, it was hard to reign yourself in. But you learnt.
Leaning my back against the same wall I let my posture relax and tried to think about what I would do once the run was over. Cassie would no doubt want to tell me of her experience, I figured we would eat and then spend the rest of the night conversing about it, maybe on the hill. I was looking forward to seeing her.
“Hey!” Suddenly Scorpius averted me from my thoughts. The rock he had been holding had skittered to the floor and he was by the corner of the street, staring back at me. “Did you here that?”
“What?” I asked.
“There are Daylighters down here.” Immediately my posture fell. The look on Scorpius’ face was not one of rationality, it was of excitement, intrigue.
“Are they guards?” I asked again, feeling my stomach begin to knot.
“I don’t think so.” He replied. “They sound like women.” Suddenly he disappeared around the wall.
“Where are you going?” Lunging around the wall I saw Scorpius already halfway down the other street, excitement in his eyes and he jumped back and forth on both feet.
“Come on!” He whispered. “Haven’t you ever wanted to see one?” Glancing back behind me I tried to pick out Chameleon and Lacerta - the didn’t seem to have noticed our departure and from where the Daylighter sounds were coming from it didn’t seem far away.
“Please Leo…” Scorpius begged, looking at me with pleading eyes. “Just this once…” There was silence for a second, my head warring with the own level of curiosity brimming in my mind. Then I sighed.
“Fine.” Scorpius yelped with excitement, before kicking his heels and speeding off in front of me.
As we darted off down the streets I knew this was a bad idea. Orion and Lyra would surely fix the problem soon - what would happen if they needed us and we weren’t there? Scorpius danced off ahead, almost yelping in delight at the freedom. He was heading more and more towards the Daylighter noise so I powered on to keep up with him.
When we reached the building the noise was so loud we could hear individual words. Scorpius crept up to the window, his chest almost to the floor as he crouched beneath it.
“What are you doing?” I hissed, still standing a few feet away nervously.
“Come on! Live a little!” He replied, grinning. Knowing there was no way he was going to listen, I sighed and crouched down myself, moving silently over to join him. As I flattened my back against the wall my ears tuned out the other noises to hear the talking.
“I thought Protea was trying to conserve the fresh food?” One of the voices, presumably an old lady’s, spoke scornfully to her friend. Scorpius grinned from ear to ear and I had to join him.
“Well you know what he’s like. These stupid damn parties. Who is he trying to impress?”
“Protea just likes to show off. Plus the Gretenig family are here.” Daring to lift my head slightly above the window ledge, I peeked over and saw the two women standing a few feet away inside the room. Both were dressed like servants and one held a large bucket of something in her hands.
“Well this stew is no good. What shall we do with it?”
“Throw it outside. The rats can have it.” Suddenly they began to move towards the window. Jerking back down and grabbing Scorpius we both panicked. There was no time to move now. Pressing our bodies as close to the wall as we could we held our breath and suddenly the women were right above us.
“Such a waste.” All at once a river of stew tumbled down from above. As it splattered against the cobbled floor droplets splashed against my face and clothes - as I licked my lips I could taste beef. We watched it slowly sink away into the drains, the two women still chattering about Protea and the party currently happening. Neither of them looked down to see us. When they finally moved back into the room I let go of the breath I had been holding, my body almost tumbling forward in relief. Glancing over at Scorpius I saw relief on his face too, then elation. He laughed, not loud enough for anyone to hear, but enough to make me join in.
“That was close.” Wanting to move away from the window as quickly as possible I shuffled to the side, going to step back into the shadows, but seeing the pool of stew still slipping across the cobbles.
“Let’s go back over the roofs.” My eyes glanced around for some kind of ledge or pipe, and when I spotted one I grabbed hold of it and began to climb up. Not knowing if Scorpius was following I carried on up, climbing up the side of the building until I reached a small roof. It wasn’t the top of the building, but it would do.
“Keep it down!” I whispered, looking down and seeing my friend struggling a little more than I had with the rusting metal pipe. Despite the recklessness and stupidity of what we were doing, it was a little exhilarating to break the rules. When Scorpius finally joined me on the roof, I pointed over to the other slightly lower ones.
“We jump across there.” Blue eyes widened
“Jump?” I smiled.
“It’ll be quicker.” Without giving him any time to reply, I took a step and launched myself off the roof. For a second I sailed through the air, then with a light thud I landed on the other side.
“See? Simple.” Scorpius didn’t seem to think so. With a quiet laugh I carried on, running over to the other side of the new roof and jumping across again. I knew I should wait for my friend, but part of me didn’t care if he made it or not. Part of me felt a little smug, like I had bested him. Cassie would have found it funny.
Silently I darted across the roofs, landing on all fours like a cat every time. It felt good to stretch my legs, to finally reach my full athletic potential. I began to get a little reckless, taking fewer and fewer steps every time. When I eventually figured I should stop and wait for my friend, I crouched down on the edge of an overhanging roof, the tips of my feet sticking out into the cold night air. This was what I loved. Crux had trained me to be a thief, but I was also an acrobat, a spy, a wisp of air - untraceable. I was about to look back at the trail of roofs I had left behind me when suddenly a noise averted my attention. It came from the window, right by I was crouching. Giggling.
Intrigued, I crawled up to the ledge the way Scorpius and I had done earlier. Pausing and waiting for silence, I slowly peeked my eyes over to see what was inside.
The room was a bedroom. Lavishly decorated, it was like royalty lived there. A giant four poster bed was the centrepiece of the room, but the two girls were seated on lounging chairs across the other side. I couldn’t see either of their faces, both of them looking at something in a book.
“Do you really think it’s like that?” One of the girls asked. Her voice was light and youthful, like spring. “True love?” I rolled my eyes. Trust them to be talking about that. Both girls had blonde hair, one with it cut slightly shorter and the other’s longer hair a more golden colour, like syrup. It seemed they had taken a break from the party to discuss their book in private - I couldn’t imagine why. Darklighters had neither the time, nor patience for books.
“I don’t know.” The other girl replied. Her voice was more grown up, thoughtful and beautiful to hear. I was trying to imagine what the age difference between the two was, when suddenly her face turned for a brief second towards the window.
My breathing stopped.
It was like the world had frozen, just for that moment. My body felt numb, unable to cope with the emotion that flowed through me. The girl with the golden hair had a face unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was perfectly formed, her skin marked with light freckles, but still unbelievably beautiful. Her nose was small, her lips pink like a rose. And her eyes. Thankfully they did not meet mine, but even a short glimpse was enough to tell me they sparkled like sapphires. As the girl continued to talk, probably about love, I found myself unable to even think about anything else. About the fact that, in that one moment, she had changed my whole perception on life forever. I was in love.
“Rose?” Suddenly there was a knock at the door. The two girls quickly jumped to attention, shoving their book underneath a cushion and brushing down their dresses as the new person entered. I ducked my head, but still glanced through the corner of the window at them. The man, who I presumed was a servant, ushered the girls quickly out of the room, seeming flushed and a little exasperated. When the door closed behind them silence fell over the area again.
I leant back against the wall, my eyes glazed and my mouth half open. Who was that girl? I had to find out more about her, see her again, maybe even talk to her. My heart ached at the thought of us never meeting, at never laying eyes on her again. Suddenly I had an idea. Bringing up my hands, I focused my thoughts and brought up the blue light again. When I had grown it to a considerable size, I shaped the ball again and then rose to my feet. Crouching by the window I opened it with my elbow, concentrating on releasing the light slowly and avoiding what had happened in my sleeping quarters. As I closed my eyes, I thought of the girl and let it steadily release from my fingers. The light drifted lazily inside, settling in they air just above where she had been sitting, the girl of my dreams. Hopefully she would get the message. I stared at it for a few seconds, still feeling the sense of wonder all the way through my body, when suddenly a loud thud took me out of my reverie.
“You are insane!” Scorpius hissed, obviously out of breath and annoyed at the wild goose chase I had taken him on. I blinked a few times to get back to reality, still too dazed to even smirk. My friend walked up to me, glancing through the window and seeing the light I had left.
“What’s that?” He asked. Finally pulling myself together again, I shook my head, turning away and beginning to look for a route down.
“We need to go.”
The rest of the crew were waiting for us by the store when we arrived. Orion was fuming, his face a noticeable shade of pink even in the low light.
“Where have you been?” He hissed as we came within earshot. “We had to carry on without you!” I stayed calm, used to his frequent rages.
“I thought I saw something. On the roof.” I replied, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing. Scorpius seemed momentarily confused, but then nodded profusely in agreement. “We went to investigate.”
“Well next time, don’t!” Slipping my way past him into the store, I let out an inward sigh of relief. Lyra, Lacerta and Chameleon were already filling their pockets, the store much emptier than it had been before. I wondered how much of that was Darklighter work. Opening up my own jacket I began to collect my own stash, taking care to retrieve another orange and place it in a safe place. When all of us were brimming with spoils we silently stalked our way out of the city, leaving the noise and bustle of the celebrations far behind.
There was a small commotion audible as we approached the Darklighter camp. Scorpius and I turned to give each other worried glances, but when Dorado opened the peeping slot and grinned at us, my apprehension was somewhat alleviated.
“Guys! Come in!” The giant door was opened and we stepped into a sea of voices and movement. Everyone was chatting excitedly about something, but it was too vigorous and fast paced for us to hear.
“What’s happened?” I asked the young twelve year old. Orion and the other older members of the team had strode through the crowd without a word, obviously looking for Crux. Dorado smiled again, seeming just as excited.
“The Daylighters tried to set traps for the runners. Aries got trapped in one but Cassie saved him!”
“Cassie?” I had expected the exclamation to come from my mouth, but to my surprise it was Scorpius that spoke. His eyes had lit up upon hearing her name.
“Yeah. If she hadn’t he would’ve got caught for sure. She saved his life.” My mind was buzzing with thoughts. The noise of the people, the Daylighter traps, Cassie… I tried to order them and come up with a reply, but for some reason the only thing that shone clear was the image of the girl through the window.
“She’s in the main square. If you want to go…” Dorado suddenly said, pointing with his hand in the right direction. As I looked at him I realised he thought my inability to speak was surprise, or emotion over my friend’s success. She was my friend. My best friend…
“Come on Leo, let’s go!” Scorpius tapped me on the shoulder, starting to move off in the direction of the action. For a second I was dazed, not knowing what to do, but eventually I regained my composure and ran off after him.
The food in my pockets jiggled as my feet fell against the floor. With all the earlier commotion I had forgotten to drop it off. Scorpius was still a good ten metres ahead of me, his excitement kicking him into action - suddenly I realised that I couldn’t go to the square.
“Scorpius?” I called. My friend turned round, his hair the same colour as the rising sun that peeked over the skyline. “I’m gonna go check on Aries.”
“Aries? But he’s fine!” Before he had any more time to protest I turned and sprinted the other way, feeling the guilt rise inside of me.
Although fairly close to the square, the hospital was hidden away behind buildings and walkways. I used the shortcut I knew well to reach it, winding down alleyways and jumping over pools of damp muddy water left by the rainfall. It seemed like an unimpressive structure, worn away and damaged by years of use, but it still stood strong. I wiped away the dirt from a window to peer inside. Most of the beds were empty, but a few further down nearer the main entrance housed occupants. As I ran around to the front of the building and quietly stepped inside, the only sound was bird feathers ruffling in the rafters. In my younger days I had come here for somewhere quiet, to reflect. Now I only really came for Vela.
She was standing by one of the beds. In it was a small child, his brow slick with sweat and caked in dirt. As he scrunched his eyes together in pain, tiny whimpering sounds slipping from his mouth, her palm lay flat over his shoulder. Blue light shone from it, healing.
“Vela?” I asked, not sure if I should disturb the moment. My Mother looked up, a smile spreading across her face as she took in my form.
“Leo.” With her free hand she beckoned me over. I treaded lightly across the dusty floor, making my way silently over to her and the boy. “What brings you here?”
“How is Aries?” I asked, sticking my hand into my pocket and bringing out a piece of bread. Vela smiled, the wrinkles in her face creasing up and her eyes shining with gratitude.
“He is fine.” She replied, taking the piece of bread with one hand, whilst still healing the boy with the other. “The trap caught his leg, he will have bad scarring. But Cassie saved him.” My stomach churned again. The light faded from Vela’s palm and she turned to face me once more, taking a small bite from the bread and then chewing it carefully for several seconds. I noticed her hair was whiter than it had been the last time I had seen her, the small streaks of black now losing the battle.
“Oh.” I replied, not knowing what to say. I took my own piece of food from my pocket and chewed on it thoughtfully - for a second wondering if I should offer one for the boy, but deciding against it. Vela looked at me knowingly.
“But that is not the real reason you came.” She said, a small smile on her face. “To see Aries.” She was right. I had barely met the younger boy, only coming across him a few times in the square. “Why are you not with the others?” I sighed. Pulling up a nearby chair and sitting down, I saw Vela smile again, ready to listen to what I had to say.
“Have you ever been in love?” I asked, the question tumbling out of my lips. Vela’s eyes widened.
“In love?” She replied, seeming surprised. “Me?”
“Well have you?” A smile spread across her ageing face. As she took another bite of her bread, I noticed also how thin her arms were getting, how she would surely not be able to work for much longer.
“Yes.” She said. Suddenly I was intrigued.
“It was a long time ago now. When I was a young girl. Valhalia was peaceful then, no wars, no division. I worked in the local hospital, only doing errands until I had completed my training. Occasionally the head nurse would ask me to retrieve flowers and groceries for the patients, to make them feel more at home. I set off one day to do just that, and that was when I met him.” A wistful look spread suddenly across my Mother’s face. “His name was Judaius. He worked on his father’s farm, bringing in the crops to the city. When we first laid eyes on each other it was love at first sight. After I ordered he insisted on bringing my purchases all the way to the hospital for me, then he kissed my hand and asked to see me again. His eyes were like emeralds, glinting in the sunlight.” For a second I felt like I was intruding, like this moment was too intimate for me to be listening to. “We met up almost every day, walking the streets and talking about anything we could think of. When he proposed I felt like my heart would burst, like there was no other happiness in the world that could beat mine. But Judaius wasn’t used to the city. There were too many temptations, things that I inadvertently introduced him to. Two weeks before our wedding he told me of his infidelity, that he was in love with the idea of loving and wanted to be free. After that I barely saw him again.” My face fell. The sparkling in Vela’s eyes had been replaced with sadness - a sadness so intense that I felt like I myself might cry.
“I am so sorry.” I said, knowing the words meant nothing, but wanting to say them anyway.
“Do not worry.” She replied, taking my hand and smiling. “I would not take it back. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
“Do you think he is still in the city?” I asked, curiosity overtaking me. Vela smiled.
“I am sure he drank and gambled his way to an early death many years ago. But I have outlived all the men I have kissed anyway.” Out of nowhere laughter spilt from her lips, ringing out and echoing around the cavernous room. I smiled, admiring her never-ending spirit.
“So Leo.” She said after a while, her shoulders still jumping from silent chuckles. “You ask me about love. Have you found it too?” My head lowered. Suddenly I felt embarrassed, pink tinging my cheeks.
“You will not approve.” I mumbled. Vela laughed again.
“How could I not approve of my darling Leo?” Her hand touched my shoulder lightly and I looked up, summoning my courage.
“She is a Daylighter.”
Vela’s expression changed. She tried to hide it, but suddenly her smile faded and her features darkened.
“A Daylighter?” She said warily. Regret flooded through me, my expression also faltering. “Where did you see her?”
“Through a window. Scorpius and I were jumping across the roofs, I pulled ahead and waited for him to catch up. And then I saw her.” I knew there was no point lying. Vela would not approve of me putting myself in danger either, but I told her everything. It was why I had come.
“Did she see you?”
“No.” I scowled in reply. She was only looking out for me, but the rejection stung.
“Socialising with Daylighters is dangerous.” Vela said again, now putting on her motherly tone. “She could get you killed.”
“Not all Daylighters are killers!” I exclaimed, frustration beginning to build up inside of me. “I thought you of all people would understand! I love her!” The room fell silent. Dust swirled around the floor, picking up the draft from the wind outside. The sun had begun to peep through the windows, shining through the dirt and decay and casting shadows across our faces. I could see the war in my Mother’s eyes, the conflict between keeping me safe and supporting my wishes.
“Leo.” She said after what seemed like hours. “You know I have always loved you. Ever since you came into this hospital, frail and alone. That love will never stop. No matter what you do.”
“I have to see her again.” I said, knowing in my heart that there was no escaping it. “And Cassie…”
“Cassie will understand.” I knew there was a part of Vela that had hoped I would say Cassie’s name, that it would have been her that I was in love with. I wanted it too, but that would never change.
“Thank you.” I said gratefully, taking hold of her wrinkled hand and holding it tightly. “For understanding.” My Mother smiled, letting me pull her hand up so I could kiss it. As I drew my head away my gaze fell again on the little boy in the bed.
“When did he arrive?” I asked.
“Last night.” She replied, turning to look at him and placing the back of her hand on his brow. “They found him outside the gate, unable to stand up.” Suddenly she pointed to another, much smaller bed, the other side of the one we were sitting by. “She was found too.” Rising to my feet, I wandered over to the bed and then gasped. Nestled inside, wrapped up in dozens of sheets, her eyes closed as she dreamed silent dreams, was a little baby girl.
“He was carrying her.” My eyes flicked between the boy and the baby, knowing how lucky they were to have been found by the runners, what would have happened if they had not. Vela began healing the boy again and I watched her silently, seeing the love and care in her eyes. The children had been orphans when they had left the city, abandoned and left to die. But they had a Mother now. Vela was all of our Mothers. Every single child owed their life to her and Crux. It was something I would never be able to repay.
“Go and join the celebrations.” Vela said after a while, seeing me looking at her. “Cassie will be expecting you.” I nodded, taking out two apples from my pocket and placing them next to the two children.
“Take care.” I said, turning to look at my Mother one last time. She smiled.
I didn’t go to the square. Pounding my legs as fast as they would go, I raced over to the highest point in the camp. I sat myself down and looked over the buildings, seeing the lights going out as the sun rose further up into the sky. The Daylighters would be waking up now. I thought about the guards, walking into the stores and cursing the ‘thieves’ that had robbed them. I thought about the children, running around in the streets collecting stones and food for their breakfast. And I thought about Rose.