The Night Wanderers

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A Bad Impression

Lukas instructed that Toby change into the darkest clothes he owned. Toby did as he was told, dressing in dark grey trousers and a deep red shirt, covered by a black hooded jacket. It was nothing compared to the ghost-like coats of the Night Wanderers, but it would suffice. He was not entirely sure what Lukas had planned, but since he was under his command now, he thought it wise not to ask.

Lukas eyed his clothing with distaste. “I suppose it will do for this journey.” He pulled up a black silk scarf from his neck to cover his nose and mouth. “Meet me in the alley to the right of this building.” He brought up his hood, casting his disguised eyes in shadow.

“Where are you going?” Toby asked.

“Out the window.” Lukas headed for the bedroom. Toby followed. “You will be taught how to navigate the rooftops sometime soon, but for now please take the stairs.” The window swung open at his touch and he was gone in an instant. Toby sighed and closed it behind him.

“He could have said something about how to manage that,” he grumbled, returning to the main room to extinguish the candles. He had not expected to join Lukas outside this night, and unless Lukas had the rest of his Watch hidden in that alley, walking out the front door to his apartment building would be tricky. Nevertheless, it had to be done. Standing in the dark of the corridor, Toby locked the door behind him before creeping down the staircase. He set most of his weight on his hands, supported by the banisters. The wooden stairs had a tendency to creak loudly, especially at the times one least wanted them to.

Toby hesitated at the front door. He had no way of knowing if there were guards outside. The alley where Lukas waited was less than twenty metres away, but it seemed much further, given the circumstance. He opened the door an inch and peered out into the shadowed street, devoid of torchlight. There was no one.

Throwing caution to the wind, Toby lunged outside and sprinted for the alley.

“Halt, citizen!”

Toby swore under his breath and pushed himself faster. A gunshot sounded and a bullet ricocheted off the brick wall to his right, spraying him with dust. Momentarily blinded, he nearly missed the opening to the alley. A hand lunged out and dragged Toby down the right path, out of the way of oncoming gunfire.

“Night Wanderers!” The shout seemed to echo as guards called out to one another. Lukas dragged him through the alleys at a speed Toby had trouble keeping up with.

“Clearly you weren’t born to be stealthy,” Lukas grumbled. The whirring of propeller blades was audible now and they sped up, Toby’s legs flailing in the attempt to keep balanced at this incredible speed. “Follow my lead and whatever you do, don’t stray.”

With Lukas’ iron grip on his elbow, Toby had no choice but to follow. They darted round corners, squeezed through narrow gaps between towers and ducked underneath covered alleys. Toby was completely lost, and was half sure they were running in circles. Spotlights from the pursuing helicopter flickered across the pathways and Lukas slid to a sudden halt, sending Toby into a wall. He grazed his palms, but was just grateful for the rest. They must have been running for fifteen minutes without a pause.

“Catch your breath. We have another ten minutes to go.” The helicopter lurking overhead and the chasing foot soldiers had Toby’s blood racing, but having Lukas at his side was somewhat reassuring. He had already seen the likes of Lucy in action, and she was ruthless. Lukas had to be the leader of the Watch for a reason.

A gun fired, the sound muffled by Toby’s heavy panting, and the bullet missed the back of his head by millimetres. He ducked automatically, bringing up his arms to cover his face. Lukas leant out of its path and responded with a small, pocket-sized knife. The blade spun and implanted into the guard’s jaw, severing an important artery and spraying blood across the ground. Toby thought he might throw up as he watched the man crumple to the ground, reminded of Lucy’s trick some days before.

“Let’s go. As soon as they find him, they will know we’ve been here.” Lukas tugged on Toby’s elbow and carried on at a more reasonable jog. It seemed that the guards had lost their exact trail, but they were looking.

Lukas appeared to think nothing of darting into alcoves and down the wrong path to avoid the flickering spotlights, scanning for their position. Toby, on the other hand, was hauled round corners and out of the path of bullets by the back of his jacket. His collar threatened to slice through the base of his throat every time he was grabbed, which made breathing that much harder.

When Lukas finally came to a stop at the point where three alleys met, one of them dipping underneath one of the taller high-rise buildings, Toby leant forwards on his knees. His breathing was so heavy, anyone would think he had been running for days.

“Please be quiet.” Lukas clamped a hand over Toby’s nose and mouth, completely cutting off his airway. Toby panicked and struggled scrabbling for air. It was only for a moment, but it was long enough for his mind to start considering thoughts of death. “They’ve lost our trail. Come on, it’s time for you to meet the Watch.”

Toby barely heard him over the sound of his own gasping. Just who, exactly, had he sworn his allegiance to?

Lukas waited patiently in the middle of the covered alleyway, his hand holding back a sheet of moss to reveal a door as black as the wall. He pushed open the door, revealing a staircase that spiralled down into the earth. Toby lifted his eyes to meet those of Lukas and raised his eyebrows. They were going underground? Lukas merely blinked at him and inclined his head to the entrance.

“I’m still invited after my poor attempt at avoiding the Guard?” he asked, ashamed of his slightly breathless voice.

“That will improve with experience.”

Toby sighed quietly and took a cautious step into the dark, descending tunnel. After everything he had seen the Night Wanderers do – bring down helicopters, kill guards with a single throwing knife, scale buildings as high as the clouds – it was silly that a tunnel scared him. Nevertheless, when Lukas pulled the door closed behind them with a bang that echoed straight down the stair way, Toby’s heart began to pound. He could see absolutely nothing, and the stairs were steep and uneven. He had only his hands to guide him along the walls.

“Don’t slip. It’s a long way down.” Lukas’ voice bounced off the walls in every direction, making it sound like there were at least five of him speaking. His words and the eerie echo did nothing to calm Toby’s nerves.

That said, they were true. The stairs carried on forever and the air grew progressively thicker, mustier, and there was still no sign of the bottom. After a while, however, voices began to float up towards him. They were loud and irritable, but not clear enough for him to make out the exact words. Behind him, Lukas sighed softly, like this was something he was used to hearing.

Finally, Toby’s hands brushed fabric and he noticed slivers of orange light peeking around the edges of what looked like a doorway. Lukas stepped past him and pulled open the curtain, revealing a large, rectangular room. The brick walls were bare, the stone floor covered with a circular sheepskin rug. A desk stood against one wall with a map draped across it, covering the entire wooden surface. There were a few chairs, none of them matching, and two side tables. The room was lit by wall-mounted candles. What was most strange was the mismatched group of people within the room, seven in total. The most noticeable was a slender girl with dark blonde hair that cascaded onto her shoulders in untamed waves. She stood in the middle of the room, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her stormy grey eyes latched onto his and her mouth curled up into a wry grin. It was Lucy, the girl with incredible knife skills. She could not be called beautiful in the same way Elsa could, but her intense gaze and striking features made her fascinating to look at in much the same way.

All the others were young men, their ages ranging from about sixteen up to twenty-five. The teenage boy standing opposite Lucy caught Toby’s attention because he looked furious. His curly hair was the colour of sand and the scar of an old wound ran down the length of his face, over his left eye. He was easily the youngest of the group. A large, muscular man had his hand on the boy’s shoulder, as though preparing to hold him back should he choose to attack Lucy. His dark hair, sticking up unevenly in tufts, looked as though he had not brushed it in weeks. Oliver slouched in the chair furthest away from the arguing pair, staring blankly into space. A lanky boy in his late teens sat cross-legged at his feet, mulling over blueprints and diagrams with a metal contraption in his hands. His light brown hair fell forward into his eyes as he fiddled with components, as though oblivious to the raised voices.

The other two tried to have a conversation over the top of Lucy’s head, yells to each other over the shouts of Lucy and the youngest boy. One of the voices Toby recognised as belonging to Jack, the mischievous youth. Without the coat and scarf, he looked a lot older than he sounded. He could even be older than Toby. Wavy blond hair crept down his neck, paler than his skin. His friend looked a similar age to Lukas, maybe twenty-five, but no less mischievous. They were shouting loudly to each other just to make the arguing pair scream louder at one another. Toby resisted the temptation to cover his ears.

Quiet.” Lukas barely raised his voice, but the room fell silent immediately. Lucy and the sixteen-year-old turned their backs on one another. Marcus took a step back from them, and Jack and his friend stifled smirks. Oliver blew out a relieved sigh, but nothing about the boy at his feet changed. Lukas sat down behind the desk, his face unreadable. “How can you expect to work together on the outside when you can’t even get along inside?” he demanded, his voice calm with the smallest hint of impatience.

“I can’t be expected to accept this ridiculous idea of infiltrating the homes of government officials!” the furious boy stated angrily, pointing at Lucy while glaring at Lukas.

“It’s the most efficient way of weakening the enemy!” Lucy countered, equally furious.

In the corner, Oliver rubbed his eyes tiredly. At his feet, the boy flipped a switch on the contraption in his hands and one end lit up. It was an electrical torch. Had he built it himself?

“Weakening the government is one thing, but it won’t make our fight any easier,” Marcus pointed out, resting his hands on the shoulders of the fighting pair, subtly keeping them apart. “It doesn’t matter if the Governor is the last one standing, every Dark Keeper in the city will continue to defend him. We need to attack the guards individually, in their homes, while they’re unarmed.”

“Absolutely not.” Oliver stood suddenly and stared hard at Marcus. “Attacking them like that is cowardly.”

“You don’t usually have a problem with assassinations,” Jack noted, one corner of his mouth curling up into a teasing grin. “What’s with the sudden issue over morality? None of this is just.”

“The Guard are just doing their job,” Oliver continued, as though Jack had said nothing. “It’s unlikely they know that what they’re doing is wrong. We don’t have the right to attack them the same way we attack the government officials. When we fight them, we fight fairly.”

“This isn’t a battle we can fight fairly,” the youngest member of the Watch snapped at him. “If they could find our outposts, they wouldn’t think twice about raiding them, and you know that.”

“Quiet,” Lukas commanded again. “You aren’t making a very good impression.”

Everyone in the room cast a wary glance at Toby at his words, who collapsed into the nearest chair. Whatever he had been expecting to find among the other members of his Watch, it had not been this level of disagreement and chaos. If he had known his new teammates were like this, he might have had second thoughts about joining. What had he got himself into?

It was not long past dusk when Toby let himself into his old home apartment via the living room window. With his left hand bandaged heavily with gauze, added to his not-yet-healed leg, the climb had been somewhat tricky. He paused on the windowsill to catch his breath, partly because he was tired from the ascent, and partly because he was afraid what Elsa would throw at him this time. After the raid, he had spent the day at the base with Hannah fussing over his new injuries.

Pushing open the window, he hopped down into the darkened room and glanced cautiously towards the bedroom door, half expecting to see Elsa wielding a knife again. The door was left open, but there was no one there. Toby glanced about worriedly before his attention was drawn to a candle holder with smoke spiralling up from the base.

As he stepped closer, he realised that a candle had burnt all the way down and had just extinguished. Had it been burning all day?

A rustle from the sofa caught his attention and his body responded automatically. He dipped into a slight crouch, his eyes zoning in on the shadows. His right hand clasped around the hilt of his knife before sense took over and he straightened up again. Elsa lay at an awkward angle on the sofa, clearly asleep. She was still dressed, and her position implied that she had fallen asleep unwillingly. Taking careful steps towards her, he pulled his scarf down around his neck and pushed his hood back.

She was using her arm as a pillow and one of her legs had fallen from the seat. There was no way she could be comfortable lying that way, but if she was exhausted… A thought suddenly occurred to him. Has she been waiting for me to come back? He dismissed it almost as soon as he considered it. She had stated herself that she hated him now.

In any case, he could not leave her sleeping like this. She would wake up stiff and sore. Weighing up his options, Toby glanced down at himself and grimaced at the amount of blood stained onto the coarse fabric. Even if he settled for waking her up, the sight of him might be enough to frighten her half to death. He tried to keep the rustling to a minimum as he unbuttoned the coat and draped it over the back of an armchair. Left in his dark running trousers and black cotton t-shirt, the night air sent a chill over his skin. He pulled the scarf away from his neck and unbuckled his weapons’ belt, leaving them with his coat, but immediately he felt vulnerable.

As he crouched at her side, he realised that waking her was not an option. Dark shadows had appeared beneath her eyes in stark contrast to her pale face. He felt then like the first time he had seen her, taken aback by her unassuming, naturally pretty face. Having spent a year surrounded by the hardened features of the Watch, her softness somehow allowed the tension in his shoulders to ease.

Careful not to jolt her too suddenly, he picked her up in his arms and headed for the bedroom. Her head leant against his shoulder, her expression peaceful. He was reminded, as he stared down at her, why he fell in love with her. Her heart was a bottomless lake of pure goodness, holding no disliking or hatred for anybody, but her flaring, fiery temper made her unpredictable. When around her, Toby remembered always being on his toes with caution, but he could rely on her to always be honest, whether her words were shouted or whispered.

He set her gently on the bed, making sure she would be comfortable, before dragging a blanket down from the top of his wardrobe and draped it over her. It was not overly cold, but the chill was unpleasant. He pulled the corners out to make sure she was completely covered, but hesitated when she mumbled softly in her sleep and rolled onto her side, clutching the pillow beneath her head.

Toby reached out instinctively to brush her hair back behind her ear, but stopped centimetres from her cheek. Images of the last time he had seen her flashed in his mind, having her claim she hated him, and her complete lack of response when he kissed her. He pulled back, wanting to touch her but fearing her rejection even more.

He was halfway back to the doorway when she stirred. “Are you leaving me again?”

Those five words, though spoken by a voice that was still mostly asleep, sent a wracking wave of guilt through him that was so strong even breathing became painful. It crashed straight through his emotional defences and sent a tremor through his hands. He clenched them into fists to hide it as he slowly turned to look at the sleepy girl over his shoulder. Her eyes were only half open, but fixed him in place. There was no chance he could leave with her looking at him that way.

“Would you rather I stayed?” he asked quietly, trying his best to rearrange his face back into the mask of emotionlessness he had worn for the better part of the last year. He was unsure if he managed it or not.

Elsa nodded tiredly and closed her eyes again, one hand reaching out for him. He hesitated a moment before cautiously returning to her side. Slipping his hand into hers, he perched on the edge of the bed. Her mouth smiled softly at his touch, but her eyes remained closed.

“I missed you…”

The words were mumbled, but they made Toby’s heart soar. He tried to wipe off his creeping grin with the back of his hand, but it would not go away.

“I’m here now.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and let her drift back to sleep.

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