The First Test
After being subjected to a six-hour work shift watching Jake and Elsa floozy up to one another, Toby was let out of the café with plenty of time to meander back to his apartment. Dusk was two hours away, but still Toby half expected hands to reach out of the alleys and grab him.
As he grew closer to his tower building, Toby became increasingly aware that he had no way of contacting the Night Wanderers. It dawned on him then, as he reached the door to the tower, that he had seen three members of the group that day and had not spoken to any of them. Perhaps those sightings had not been coincidences and he was supposed to approach them. Maybe he had missed his chance.
Toby paused outside the door and took one last glance around. The street was beginning to empty now, with everyone heading for home or shelter. There was no sign of Lukas, Marcus, Oliver, Lucy or anyone else dressed in a hooded grey coat. He had no desire to search through the alleys, especially as he assumed nobody would be there until dark. He did not enjoy his time in the dark before, even with a team of seven guards, and he certainly did not want to venture out on his own just yet. The night had felt heavy, oppressive.
The air in his apartment froze the breath in his lungs, as usual. He locked his door behind him and set about lighting the candles while the sun was still up. He even lit the stove just to add a bit of warmth to the place.
Toby sat on the edge of his sofa, staring intently at the window as darkness began to creep in. It was warm enough that his breath no longer frosted in front of him, but still he felt chills run across his skin as he waited. Bright light shone briefly through the gap in his curtains as a helicopter floated by, its spotlights skimming the ground and rooftops alike in search of civilians.
The door reverberated with a bang and Toby’s heart missed a beat as he leapt to his feet. He first looked to the window, but quickly realised the sound had come from the other direction. He had not expected a Night Wanderer to come straight to his door, but now that he considered it, he remembered the mysterious voice that had spoken through his buzzer the previous week. He could now identify the voice as Lukas’, but had never given it much thought before.
Taking a breath, squaring his shoulders, Toby prepared to give his answer.
But behind the door was Jake. Toby slumped noticeably. “What do you want?”
“Nice to see you too,” Jake answered, making to step through the door. Toby put his arm out, leaning against the frame, to block his way. He was in no mood for Jake’s antics, especially when he was expecting another visitor. Jake raised his eyebrows. “I actually have to talk to you.”
“Have you run out of apples?” The coldness in his tone was clear to Toby’s own ears, and yet he could not feel guilty.
Jake ignored the jibe. “You’d rather talk across the door?”
“Yes. Actually I’d rather not talk at all. I need to sleep.” He tried to close the door, but Jake held it open. “Jake, go home. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He tried again. When Jake persisted, Toby lost his temper. He pushed at Jake’s shoulders and his friend stumbled backwards.
“Okay, I don’t know what it is I’ve done to anger you this much, but you haven’t been right since last week.”
You don’t deserve Elsa. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine, just…stressed.”
“The Academy working you hard?”
“Something like that,” Toby mumbled. “Please, Jake, go home and let me sleep. We can talk in the morning.”
Jake shrugged. “Fine. Just wanted to let you know that I know how you feel about Elsa, and I want you to keep your hands off her. She’s with me, and she’s happy with me, okay? So stop drooling after her.”
Toby considered telling him that he had no such plan as to just allow Jake to win Elsa. Instead he settled for holding his gaze for several seconds, hoping the look was expressive enough. “I don’t want to steal Elsa from you,” he lied. “But perhaps you should take better care of her and you won’t have to worry about me.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed, but Toby closed the door between them before he could make a response.
Toby strode to the window, his mood dark, flung back the curtain and stared at the outside world. The roofs were bare, as were the streets, aside from the usual patrolling foot soldiers. There were no civilians, no figures in sweeping coats. Angry, Toby threw the curtain back across the window and stalked to his bedroom. He closed the door and, as he turned to face the room, he jumped a foot in the air and made a sound he would forever be embarrassed about. He clapped a hand to his mouth.
Perched on the edge of his bed, one knee drawn up, was a shadowed figure. He sat completely still, like an angel statue the rich residents had placed over their graves, only the lower half of his pale face visible. Just from this, Toby knew this was Lukas; the other Night Wanderers always wore scarves to cover themselves. He had never seen Lukas wear one. The curtains swayed gently, the window left ajar.
“I apologise for startling you,” Lukas said softly. He lowered his leg and looked up at Toby, though his eyes remained hidden in the shadow of his hood. “I considered sending Oliver for your answer, but I would prefer to hear it myself.”
Toby took a breath. “I want to help you.”
Lukas smiled. “Excellent.” He reached into an inside pocket of his coat and drew out two small scrolls, each tied clumsily with red ribbon. He held them out to Toby. “This is your first assignment. I have a fairly good idea of their meaning, but I want to make sure. Can you translate them?”
Toby took the scrolls, untied the ribbon on one and cast his eyes over the contents. It was complicated, nothing he had seen in his classes before. It was a mix of English and Latin shorthand encrypted in numerical code. “It isn’t something I can translate in an hour,” he said evasively.
Lukas raised his shoulders in an elegant shrug. “I’ll come back tomorrow evening for the translation, then.” He rose to his feet, the coat swaying about his ankles. “I’ll try not to frighten you quite so much.” He pulled back the curtains, threw open the window and perched on the windowsill. Turning back briefly, Lukas’ mouth smiled beneath the shadow of his hood before he dropped down, out of sight. Toby lurched forwards, slammed the window closed and snapped the curtains shut. He took another look at the scroll, but soon realised it would take up to three hours to translate into English, and even longer to decrypt the code. With two scrolls, he would be working on them for twelve hours straight before he could get close to deciphering them.
A shadow of a figure in a long coat dropped down in front of Toby and Alex as they tried to make their way back to the base, avoiding the fight as best they could. Alex scurried back in fright, trying to drag Toby with him. Toby snarled and had his knife half-drawn before he recognised the pair of emotionless grey eyes peering above a black scarf.
Lucy made shooing motions with her hands. “We have to fight with the civilians. Lukas’ orders.”
“Why?” Toby asked irritably.
“We started this, we need to protect them. All of the soldiers are armed, including the ones that aren’t on patrol duty. They have guns, we have blades, and the citizens have virtually nothing. I saw someone with a length of pipe, and another with rocks. What chance do they have if we abandon them?”
Toby understood her point, but did not like the idea any more. “Fine, but only to protect others. I refuse to get involved otherwise.”
“Do whatever you want,” Lucy said with a shrug. She spun on her heel and swept away, leaping onto the roof of a nearby townhouse. Toby watched her for a moment before turning to Alex.
“Stay close. Fights like this aren’t anything like you’ve encountered before.”
Alex nodded and drew a machete from his belt, gripping it tightly. Toby likewise unsheathed his blade and turned right down an alley, back towards the centre of the battle. They had not walked very far when someone attacked. Alex, who was walking a fair way behind Toby, called out, “Toby, on the roof-!”
Toby lunged forwards, out of the path of the falling attacker. He turned, brandishing his blade, to face the guard. He looked as though he had just pulled a jumper over his night clothes in order to join the fight. Needless to say, he still had a pistol pointed between Toby’s eyes. Toby’s sword was not long enough to reach the guard from this distance, and he doubted he could move fast to strike before the guard could pull the trigger.
“You might want to watch your back, friend,” Toby said in the hopes it would at least distract him. Alex had his weapon in hand, but looked reluctant to use it.
The guard scoffed, not even looking round. “He’s a kid.”
Toby raised his brow. The guard thought nothing of it, but Alex saw the gesture and raised the hilt of his weapon; just seventeen, but more than capable of delivering a killing blow if he wanted. He brought it down on the back of the guard’s neck, sending him to his knees. Toby struck out with his booted foot, catching the guard’s temple and knocking him into the brick wall of the alley. He fell, unconscious.
“Is he dead?” Alex asked, concerned.
Toby shook his head. “No. Just knocked out.” He kicked the gun from the guard’s hand and picked it up, stuffed it into his belt at the back of his jeans, hidden by his coat. “We don’t kill if we don’t have to.”
Alex nodded in agreement. They continued through the streets without any other encounters until they reached the thick of the fight. The boys had to separate in order to fight off the guards that tried to ambush the civilians. Alex climbed up onto the rooftops to fight from above while Toby forced himself between a guard and a middle-aged man fighting with their hands, both having lost their weapons, and forced the heel of his hand up into the guard’s face. His nose broke and blood splatted down his shirt. Toby waved his sword, firelight glinting off the curved blade.
The guard eyed him angrily, both hands on his nose, but had the sense to turn away. Toby was armed, and he was not. The civilian took a breath to thank his protector, but Toby had already moved on. He kept Alex in his sight as he continued down a side street, where a guard held a teenage girl against the wall by her throat. Toby crouched to sweep up a broken brick, which he used to slam into the side of the guard’s head. The guard slammed into the ground, lifeless, while Toby caught the girl before she could drop. She gasped for breath, draped over Toby’s arm.
“Are you alright?” he asked. Still gasping loudly, she nodded and he set her back on her feet. “Get back inside, and take your loved ones with you. The guards won’t follow you.”
He left before she could find her voice. Toby ran through streets and alleys, listening to shouts and gunshots from the people surrounding him. He saw more than one body lying on the roadside, whether dead or unconscious he could not tell. Some were in the red coats of the Guard, and others were in night clothes. Not wanting to look too closely, Toby darted down an alley.
Two guards in uniform dropped down from the roofs either side and blocked his path. Toby slid to a halt and tightened his grip on the blade. Both the guards had pistols, and he had no chance of getting away or killing them without being killed first. Before he had chance to worry about this, however, a dark figure leapt down on top of the guards, using what looked like a long rifle gun to knock them out simultaneously. Alex straightened up with a grin, proud of his work.
“Where did you find that?” Toby asked, indicating the rifle.
“They have gunmen stationed across the district with these, shooting from above. I counted at least six Night Wanderers dead, but there’re probably more.”
Toby’s shoulders slumped. “That’s almost an entire Watch.”
Alex grimaced and took a closer look at the rifle. “This thing is heavy. I don’t understand why they don’t just use their pistols. At least they’re light and discreet.”
“Rifles have a longer range, greater accuracy,” Toby answered. “But you can’t be expected to move very much.” He stooped to pick up the two pistols dropped by the guards and handed one to Alex. “Keep this in your belt, but don’t use it.”
Alex raised one eyebrow in question. “Why take it if we can’t use it?”
“I don’t want the civilians getting hold of them,” Toby answered, sheathing the gun with the first. “Guns are unpredictable and they’ll end up killing each other before the guards. Keep hold of that rifle too, because we can give it to Jason to analyse later. There might be something from it we can use.”
“But you don’t want me to use this either, do you?”
Toby shook his head. “But just having it with you might be enough to scare off some of the Dark Keepers.” Alex shrugged and shouldered the rifle. “Don’t wander too far, okay?”
“I just saved your life, Toby. Who is meant to be protecting who, here?”
Despite the circumstances, Toby managed a laugh. “Don’t get cocky. Not until you’ve saved me at least five times.”
Alex smirked. The two continued at a jog through the alley and separated at the end where it joined two adjacent narrow streets. Toby temporarily lost sight of his apprentice, but was too preoccupied with his current objective to worry. He shoved a guard away from a citizen, smacked the gun out of his belt and held the blade against his stomach. The two stood frozen in a stalemate of fear and reluctance for several seconds before the guard pushed away. He lunged for his gun, lying several feet away. Toby knew he could not catch him before he reached the gun and pulled the trigger.
Toby pulled a knife from his belt and threw it towards the guard. It struck him in the back of the neck, slightly to the left, piercing the artery. The guard fell forwards, gasping as blood poured down his collar. A tiny twinge of remorse hit Toby’s gut, an echo of the regret he once felt for taking lives. As the guard continued to scrabble at the knife, his movements feeble now, Toby approached. The knife had pierced the neck up to the hilt and the tip was just visible on the other side, to the left of his Adam’s apple. Toby yanked the knife free and blood gushed from the two lacerations. The guard twitched once more and then was still.
He was young, a similar age to Alex, Toby noted. It was not so much regret he felt now but more a deep sadness. Most of these men believed that what they were doing was right. He turned the guard onto his back and closed his eyes. He wished he could lay his body somewhere safe, away from all this carnage, but knew it would be illogical.
Standing, Toby faced the citizen to check if he was hurt. He recognised him; it was the manager of the café he had once worked in. It appeared that the last year had not been kind to him; stubble had grown on his face and his hair had been left to grow to a shaggy length. Toby wondered whether he still had the café, or whether that had been lost to time and finances. Nevertheless, he could not speak for risk of being recognised.
“Thank you, sir,” the manager said, nodding slightly in gratitude. Toby nodded back and continued on his way.
He paused when he reached the end of the street, expecting to see Alex. Instead, he was greeted by a shrouded figure lying sprawled on his front, unmoving. A pool of blood slowly expanded around him.
The sound of Toby’s own breath seemed to drown out the noise of the surrounding battle. It was too dark, even with the fires, to see much of the figure, but it was obvious they were wearing a long coat that seemed to cover him in a blanket. Toby wanted to approach the body, but his legs refused to obey him. He was not sure if he could stand the sight of a lifeless Alex, or a lifeless anybody. He knew he should approach, identify the fallen warrior and respect him. Perhaps move his body somewhere quiet to protect it until someone could bury it. Still his legs refused.
He felt sick. His breaths came quickly and deeply, trying to keep his stomach’s contents down. He had promised to protect Alex on this quest, despite his reluctance. He had not expected to engage in a full-blown battle with the Guard.
A yell broke through Toby’s bubble of dread and relief coursed through him.
“Toby!” Alex shot into view from another street and skidded to a halt when he spotted Toby. He looked surprised, and then sheepish, and Toby expected they mirrored one another. “I thought it was you,” Alex mumbled, gesturing vaguely towards the body of the fallen Night Wanderer.
Toby shook his head. “No, I’m okay.”
They stood in silence for several seconds, before Alex asked, “Should we check who it is?”
“No,” Toby answered, a little too quickly. “If it’s someone we know, then we’ll hear about it soon enough.” He doubted he could bear to see the face of Oliver or Hannah staring lifelessly back at him.
Alex looked up from the body to meet Toby’s gaze. His eyes widened and he opened his mouth the shout a warning, but the arms had already come around Toby. Toby brought up his hands to protect his neck, but one got trapped between the hilt of a sword and his shoulder, while the other fought against the pressure of the blade. Toby’s weapon was on the floor at his feet, completely out of his reach. His attacker pulled the blade back, trying to reach Toby’s throat. Toby fought back, trying to muffle his pained groans as the sword bit deep into his palm.
By the pained look on Alex’s face, with his hands held palms up, Toby guessed that the attacker had an accomplice, with a gun aimed straight at him. The thwack of a bow sounded from a roof nearby, shortly followed by the thump of a body falling. Toby was forced around to the side. The sudden, jerking movement brought the blade closer to his neck, leaving a small scratch in the skin at the base of his throat. The bow sounded again and the attacker’s grip fell slack. Toby shrugged away and freed his blade from his palm. Blood poured down the sides of his hand and wrist. Alex hurried towards him.
“Are you alright?” he asked, looking down at the cut. Toby’s hand was shaking, though he wished it would not.
“Not really, no,” Toby muttered, testing the movement of his fingers. It felt as though they were on fire, but he was grateful it was not his weapon hand.
Lucy jumped down from a roof to the left, bow in hand. “Let your guard down, Toby?” she asked sarcastically, stooping to yank free her arrows from the two bodies. She cast her eyes briefly over the body of the Night Wanderer. “Anyone we know?”
Alex shrugged and Toby said nothing. His eyes had been drawn to a squabbling pair further down the street. A guard without uniform and a civilian had been fighting with their hands, but now the guard drew a pistol from the back of his belt. The civilian wisely took a step back, but looked reluctant to do so. The pair were talking, or rather arguing, Toby could see, but he was not in hearing range.
“Toby?” Alex said, touching his shoulder. Toby turned back to face him and Lucy, who had apparently asked him a question. “Do you want to head back to the base now? We’ve done our fair share of work here.”
Toby’s left hand was rendered useless by the injury, held loosely at his chest. He could still wield his sword if need be, but his whole body felt weaker. He was about to agree when the civilian turned his head slightly and his face briefly lit up in the light of the fires, all thoughts of the base dissolved. He was less of a boy now than the last time Toby had seen him, but he was unmistakable.
“Toby?” Lucy asked, prompting an answer.
Instead of answering, Toby gripped his weapon and lunged towards the pair. The guard rested his finger on the trigger and Toby sped up. As he neared, he realised he could not kill the guard before he shot, but perhaps he had enough time to push his hands in another direction. He half fell onto the guard’s arms, forcing the gun down, but the shot fired.
The civilian collapsed with a scream while Toby ran his blade through the guard’s abdomen, not even pausing to consider knocking him unconscious instead. As Lucy and Alex caught up to him, Toby turned towards the civilian, fearing the worst.
His eyes watering, both hands clutching his ankle, the seventeen year old civilian looked up into the hidden face of his elder brother.