A darkened figure leapt with predatory elegance from the tallest tower building across a deep chasm, landing ten or so feet lower. He crouched, hidden in the shadow of its neighbour while he scouted the surrounding area. The city of Merifry stretched out in all directions; the Government’s Castle beside the Higher Education School marked the centre of the city and four unique districts surrounded it like Saturn’s rings.
The Governor’s District was small, only twenty houses that were big enough to be mansions, sat closest to the Castle. The government’s most important people lived here, with working electricity and hot running water. Surrounding those mansions was the large Suburban District, covered in petite brick town houses with trees and lush grass lining the paved streets. The minor members of the government lived in this district along with the wealthier civilians, with access to electricity during daylight hours and fresh water that sometimes ran hot. The district made up of black stone tower apartment buildings was small in terms of land space, but was the busiest of them all, with limited electricity for only specific requirements and water that ran at only one temperature once a week and had to be stored. Beyond the towers, favelas of makeshift shelters extended for miles with no access to clean water or electricity at any time of the year and food was almost non-existent. They came to an abrupt halt where a fifteen-foot chain-link fence marked the edge of the city.
The silhouette of a young man ran across the roof of the tower and leapt to another, five feet closer to the ground. He could navigate his path only by the light of the moon and stars. No windows were illuminated, and although it made his journey all the more difficult, it also helped him to hide. A beam of bright light emanated from the centre of the city, every window in every turret shining with electrical light. The figure thought the government was taunting the rest of the city by keeping its electricity running through the night. Pinpricks of flickering torchlight moved up and down the main streets as the guards of the city made their nightly patrol of the three closest districts. The young man watched them with his upper lip curled up in a snarl of disgust behind a black silk scarf.
Anyone caught outside after dark was shot on sight. It was still unclear why; they assumed the government was up to something they should not be under the cover of darkness. So far, nothing outstandingly illegal had been discovered. He flinched as the propellers of a helicopter sounded, lifting from a helipad on the Government’s Castle. Two spotlights shone from its underside, illuminating the darkened buildings. The figure grumbled quietly to himself and pulled his hood lower over his eyes, lifting his scarf to cover his nose. His eyes, although bare, were disguised in intricate, jagged patterns of blue war paint. Helicopters were his one worst enemy. He dropped down from the edge of his roof, landing in a roll on a slanted ledge that acted as a roof ten feet below. The shadows were darker here and he was surrounded by taller towers on three sides.
Over a year previously, Toby Cartwright raced with the enclosing dusk along the cobbled streets towards his apartment building. He could see the sun’s rays recede behind the horizon ahead of him; he pushed himself faster.
Toby could hear his own breath ragged in his ears, his lungs burned and his eyes watered. Guards dressed in red began to emerge from buildings with large, black, terrifying guns under their arms. Each of them eyed Toby with a clear warning as he sprinted past. His building was in sight at the end of the street and he had only half a minute of daylight left. He pushed himself even harder.
He crashed through the doors to the tower building, tripped over the threshold and landed sprawled on his front. He crawled forward on his elbows and kicked the door closed behind him.
The dark entryway was dimly lit by candles sitting in brackets on the walls. Toby heaved himself onto the second step of the staircase and allowed himself to rest a moment there. His heart beat thrice the speed it should and his breath came sharp and short. He sat with his elbows on his knees, his forehead in his hands. He hurt all over; his muscles felt torn to ribbons and his feet pounded flat. His knees shook. The owner of the café where Toby worked had requested he stayed until closing time, which was not a big request in reality, but the café was situated in the Suburban District and Toby lived on the outer ring of the Tower District. He was still wearing his waiter’s uniform with a black apron in his lap.
Once his nerve endings stopped tingling with adrenaline and his legs stopped trembling, Toby stood and blew out the candles; it was incredibly unlikely anyone else was still outside. And if they were, it was nearly impossible to get home alive in the dark. Anyone with sense would sleep where they were. Toby had spent the last two nights at the café, and risked the little time he had to get home purely because his bed was at least comfortable enough to sleep in. The cot at the café felt like lying on concrete.
Toby blew out each of the candles on his way up the three sets of stairs up to his apartment, leaving the one closest to his door lit while he fished out his key. It stuck in the lock, like usual, and he slammed his shoulder against the door to get it open. His breath seemed to freeze in his lungs. Toby fumbled for the matches in the dim light and quickly ran round lighting all his candles before he returned briefly to the corridor to blow out the final candle. He locked the door and left the key on the table.
His apartment was minimalistic, with only one bedroom, one bathroom and a sitting room that turned into a kitchen at one end. Toby headed into his bedroom and, halfway through changing out of his uniform, there was a muffled thump on his front door and he jumped half a foot in the air. A disgruntled groan followed the sound and Toby went cautiously out into the sitting room, his shirt draped over only one shoulder. A knock followed, accompanied by the grumbling voice of Jake, a friend and neighbour of Toby’s.
Toby pulled open the door and shrugged on his shirt. “Have you not learnt to morph through solid matter yet?” he asked.
“Funny,” Jake muttered back, shoving past him into the apartment. “Why do you always blow the candles out when you get home?” Before Toby could explain the importance of making the candles last as long as possible, he continued, “It’s considered impolite to answer the door undressed.”
“I was afraid you might hurt yourself,” Toby answered snidely as he fastened the last of the buttons. “Do you have an issue with my chest?”
Jake shrugged. “It’s a bit bony. I know the girls think you’re cute, Toby, but you don’t really do it for me.”
Toby smirked, but Jake had his back to him. He began picking up things and examining them without interest with his grey eyes. “What brings you home so late?” he asked as he flipped a vase upside down and put it back on the wrong surface. “Why did you bother risking the dark?” He started juggling with some ornamental pinecones that had been in the apartment before Toby moved in.
“I’ve slept at the café for the past two nights, and I may as well have not slept at all,” Toby answered irritably. He wanted Jake to leave so he could go to bed. Jake had no such plan.
“So why didn’t you just go to your parents’?” He put the pinecones in the sink and helped himself to an apple. “It’s nicer and closer to the café.”
“I would rather sleep on a concrete slab than go back to sharing a room with my brother.”
Jake shrugged and shook his ash blonde hair out of his eyes. It brushed his collar and tickled his neck as he glanced around the kitchen area for something else to look at. Toby replaced the vase in its correct place right side up and moved the pinecones back to the table beside the sofa. The sink had fortunately been dry. “Is there a reason you came to see me?” he asked his friend.
Jake put his free hand against his chest as though the question hurt him. “You never want to see me anymore.”
“Not when I haven’t slept for two days and I have to get to the college for eight o’clock tomorrow.” Toby grasped Jake’s wrist as he reached for another apple, having discarded the core of the first on the countertop. “Stop eating my food.”
“I’m hungry,” Jake protested.
“Then go back to your own apartment and eat your own food.”
Jake scowled. “Don’t be so grumpy.”
“I haven’t slept for-!” Toby broke off at the sound of propellers. Jake, his stomach forgotten, bounded over to the window and pulled the right curtain back an inch. A spotlight shined briefly on his face and he yanked the curtain back shut. Toby followed him to the window and glanced through a tiny gap between the curtain and the window frame. Three helicopters, each with two separately moving spotlights, were circling the district.
Jake cursed softly in wonder. “Where do they get the money for them?”
“The government?” Toby suggested dully. “There has to be some connection. People drop dead from guns that no one can possibly afford and the mayor does absolutely nothing about it?”
Jake shrugged. “So long as you stay out of the dark, you don’t die,” he pointed out. “To be completely honest, I don’t understand how people haven’t got the message yet.”
Toby looked incredulously over at Jake, who had his nose almost pressed against the glass. “Jake.” He looked up, and Toby punched him in the eye.
Jake landed heavily on his back, almost pulling the curtain rail down with him. He sat back up, one hand pressed against his left eye. “Ow!” he exclaimed, more out of annoyance than pain.
“People die, Jake,” Toby snapped angrily.
“Okay, okay!” Jake replied, holding up his free hand in surrender. “All I’m saying is that this has been going on for what, twenty years now? I don’t understand why people are still getting caught outside after dusk.”
As much as he hated to admit it, Toby thought that Jake had a valid point. Instead of agreeing, he answered, “Perhaps people are more willing to risk their lives than sleep on lead beds at work.”
Jake hauled himself back to his feet. “I wasn’t meaning you, Toby.”
Toby shrugged and looked back out the window. Jake joined him, peering out the other side of the curtain. The three helicopters closest to them – spots of light in the distance were visible now – began to fly closer to the roofs of the towers, circling a small area with all six spotlights trained on the same place.
The boys shared a concerned look. “Do you think they’ve found someone?” Toby asked. Jake just shrugged, but he was far from disinterested.
A shotgun fired and they both fell straight to their knees beneath the windowsill. It was an instinctive reaction and a blood-curdling scream of pain followed. Slowly, Toby peered over the windowsill outside and watched the shots explode from the helicopters underside. The scream cut off short and Toby’s blood ran cold.
He sat down heavily, leaning against the wall and clawed his fingers into his hair. “That was a woman’s scream.”
Jake sat beside him, loosely embracing his knees. “Anyone we know?”
Toby shrugged. “It’ll be in the paper tomorrow.”
The boys sat in silence for what seemed like hours before Jake spoke again. “I can’t believe she just got let out from work. No one’s outside after six; where could possibly still be open?”
“The spotlights were pointing into an alley,” Toby said. “They’re safer, but take longer.”
Before either of them could speak again, a deafening explosion broke the night. The glass rattled dangerously in its frame as Toby yanked the curtain back. The tail of the helicopter that had fired the shots was on fire and spinning uncontrollably. The pilot was just about managing to keep it airborne. Toby’s heart beat loudly and rapidly in his chest as the helicopter spun towards a tall tower. He glanced over at Jake; his face was illuminated by the fire and his eyes wide as he watched the scene before him. Toby looked back outside.
“Do you see that?” he snapped suddenly. “On the tower opposite. Do you see them?”
“Toby, my short attention span is all used up right now on the flaming, out of control helicopter.”
“But look.” A shadow of a figure that looked more like a four-legged spider from this distance was scaling up the side of the opposite tower. Toby watched them with a furrowed brow. He could not see any detail of the figure, but saw, as they reached the roof, that they had a bow. The figure nocked an arrow and let it fly towards the already flaming helicopter. Halfway through its flight, the arrow caught fire. A second, louder explosion sent the helicopter flying towards the Suburban District the second the arrow hit.
“I saw that,” Jake commented.
The flying machine landed on a large stretch of grass, sending up a flurry of red and orange flames and a plume of black smoke.
There were no sirens. No screams. Apart from the propellers of the other helicopters, which were now retreating back towards the Castle, there was complete silence. Toby could no longer see the figure with the bow.
“Do you think that will be in the papers?” Jake asked and Toby’s head snapped round at the hint of humour in his voice. To his complete surprise, Jake was grinning.
“What are you smiling about?”
“We just watched a Dark Keeper helicopter get taken down by civilians,” Jake pointed out. “How can that not be something to smile about?” Toby hesitated. “Come on, Toby, it means we’re finally starting to fight back.”
“No civilian can get access to a bow with that sort of range; or explosive arrows, for that matter,” Toby said.
“Not any old civilian can get them,” Jake answered. He lowered his voice as though it was possible someone was listening in. “There’s been talk of a guild that has been planning to overthrow the Dark Keepers. It’s impossible to identify them in the street, it’s made up of separate groups, they have secret hideouts and they must have a mole in the government to get hold of those kinds of weapons.”
Toby was speechless for a moment. He glanced back outside, but nothing had changed. The helicopters had retreated, the fire was still going on the grass, and the shadow figure was gone.
“I can’t imagine it will work,” he mumbled lamely after a moment.
Jake rolled his eyes. “You’re such a pessimist.”
“Go home, Jake. I need to sleep. And if what you say is true, life is going to get a lot more difficult.”
Jake scowled and stalked towards the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Toby nodded, but the door had already closed. He pulled his curtains back across the window and was just heading to his bedroom when the electrical buzzer connected to the entrance to his building buzzed. Toby froze mid-step and stared at the buzzer.
It buzzed again, and again, until Toby cautiously approached it. He held down the button allowing him to talk. “Who’s this?”
The voice on the other end was strong and striking, like the toll of a bell. Toby was hesitant to answer. “You might want to get yourself home.”
There was a slight chuckle. “Are you not going to invite me into the safety of your apartment?”
“No,” he said, a little too quickly. “I don’t know who this is.”
He was gone. Toby stood staring at the buzzer for a few moments in a trance, trying to understand what had just happened. He shook himself and tried to forget the unforgettable voice on the other end of his buzzer.
Even though he was exhausted, Toby lay awake for at least half an hour thinking about Jake’s rumours. Night had been forbidden for as long as he could remember; he had had nightmares about being outside in the dark when he was a child. It seemed unreal that there were people rebelling against the Dark Keepers by destroying a helicopter with government weapons.
Still crouched in the shadow of the three neighbouring towers, Toby watched the spotlights glaze over the black stone, only a few feet above his head. Keeping close to the ground, he scurried to the side to avoid the edge of the light as it scanned across his roof. It moved on after a brief search, which Toby avoided with relative ease.
He straightened and watched the helicopter disappear behind a tower before he took a step back. Toby was halfway through his run-up to the next roof when another spotlight peeked up from behind the top of a tower directly in front of him, the white spotlight temporarily blinding him. The momentum of his run sent him over the edge of the tower and he launched himself towards the next, grappling blindly for the edge of the next building. His fingertips scraped the very corner of the roof, but not enough to maintain the hold. He fell, his hands frantically searching for holds in the stone.
He was fortunate enough to grasp onto a windowsill, the sudden, jerking halt straining his shoulders. With a glance down, he realised he was still sixty feet from the ground. He dropped onto the windowsill one floor down, grasping onto the wall for balance. He did not allow himself check if the curtains were closed before he hopped onto a ledge just wide enough for his feet that wound around the tower. Toby stepped off onto a low roof on the east side.
The spotlight shone on him again and, without looking up, he broke into a run across the roofs and ledges between buildings. Men dressed in red leapt down from surrounding roofs, nipping at Toby’s ankles before he scaled up the side of one of the taller towers, jumping shadows in an attempt to lose them. Guns started firing, from above and below from the helicopters and the hand pistols the Dark Keeper soldiers carried. Toby zigzagged along his path between narrow alleys above the ground to limit range and accuracy. Nevertheless a bullet nicked his lower leg and he stumbled, cursing. Ignoring the burning sensation, he kept running.
Once he lost the spotlights and the chasing soldiers, Toby rested on a ledge surrounded by three high walls that his him mostly from view. With his breath coming harshly in his lungs, he rolled up his trouser leg and examined the bullet wound. A small chunk of flesh had been nicked out of his calf and was bleeding heavily, but it was not life threatening. Not so long as it did not get infected. He scaled down the side of the building, keeping as much weight off his wounded leg as possible. The task was slower than usual, but the Dark Keepers had lost track of him completely.
Six feet from the floor, someone grabbed onto the ankle of his wounded leg and he nearly lost his grip on the windowsill above him. He called out as his wound flared in pain and he attempted to shake off his captor, which was difficult with only his fingertips supporting his weight. He was pulled down and he lost his grip. He landed on his wounded leg, which collapsed beneath him. He fell heavily on his hip and hands.
“Sorry, I didn’t realise you were hurt.”
With his hands clasped to his bloody leg and his eyes watering, Toby scowled up at the silhouette of his friend. A pair of large, blue-grey eyes stared down at him above a black silk scarf. “The yell of pain should have been explanatory enough.”
“Don’t be cold, Toby.” She offered her hands and helped him back onto his feet.
“Don’t sneak up on me, Lucy,” he snapped back irritably.
“I didn’t sneak up on you. I tugged on your leg to let you know I was there.”
Toby decided to let it rest rather than complain of his injury again. He limped beside her as they made their way through the maze of alleys. Lucy offered her shoulder for him to lean on, but he declined. They walked mostly in silence and Toby’s comments were cooler than usual. He and Lucy had a history that had not quite faded into non-existence, or at least tolerable existence. Lucy did not appear to notice.
“Were you looking for me?” Toby asked after an uncomfortably long period of silence.
“Not especially,” Lucy replied with a shrug. “Lukas asked me to keep an eye out for you, but I was actually on my way back from the Suburban district.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Spying. Lukas doesn’t let us do anything else alone.” She glanced up at him, smiling slyly. “What were you up to on the rooftops?”
Toby had been dreading that question. “Nothing.”
“Uh-huh. You risked being spotted by the guards, and the helicopters, got yourself injured to do…nothing.” He did not appreciate the sarcasm, but said nothing. Lucy, unsatisfied with his disgruntled silence, pushed on. “You were looking for her, weren’t you? You were going to her house.”
“I was scouting,” Toby replied, his voice clipped.
“Scouting for your girlfriend,” Lucy corrected. “The others are beginning to worry that you’re drawing attention to the outpost. Unless you want to integrate yourself back into society, you need to stop looking for her.”
Toby stopped and turned on her. “Don’t talk about her. Don’t mention her again.”
Lucy narrowed her war-painted eyes up at him. “I think I’ve earned the right to talk about her.”Toby had no reply to this, nor did he want to think about it. He turned away and hobbled on, leaving Lucy to flank him silently.