A harsh sandstorm had kicked up on the outskirts of the city by late afternoon, blasting grains of dust into every crack and crevice. Rocks and manmade structures were reduced to ghostly shadows of their former appearance in the swirling winds. The golden aura had quickly consumed everything within a two- mile radius, sending those who dwelled outside the protection of the city walls scrambling for cover through the haze. But not everyone had far to travel.
A system of underground tunnels and catacombs hidden beneath the dilapidated old desert villa—where, just three hours ago, the Outlanders and Barreau boys had staged an operation against the Dispatchers—served as a refuge for the exiled gang. Much of their daily life was in fact lived down here, away from the harsh heat of the desert sun. The deeper caves worked well for food storage, fires could be built for cooking, and the system was large enough for everyone to have their own space.
That is not to say that life below the surface was particularly comfortable; nevertheless, it was how they survived. Every two weeks, Quentin would travel back through an adjoining tunnel with food and supplies from the city. There was not always enough for everyone, which often led to fights and petty squabbling. The ‘first come, first served’ rule seemed to work until someone bashed another in the head with a rock, or until Igor forced his way to the front of the line with threats about cooking one of them for dinner.
But not even he could win this time. They had run out of food a week prior, and everyone was on edge. A fire crackled bright in the corner room of the underground cave, illuminating the walls around them. One of the girls had placed a cast iron pot over it earlier with what she claimed was bone broth.
“This shit tastes like piss!” Igor yelled, hurling his metal cup at the stone wall with a loud clang that echoed throughout the caverns. The dark, reddish-brown contents splattered everywhere, demolishing a series of intricate paintings Olivier had been working on for weeks. Emilie’s attempt to make soup had clearly failed.
Severo sighed and closed his eyes. As a young Dalishkova Knight living undercover with the Outlanders, he was beginning to lose patience. These boys were primal, unhinged. Much like the wolves he once fought off his father’s farm in a previous life. But fighting was no option here. He could not risk being drawn into their animalistic hierarchy, much as he wished to interfere at certain moments. It was becoming ever more difficult to remain steadfast. The boy took a deep breath and glanced over his letter, remembering the assignment. Everything would fall into place soon. I am a Knight of the Order of Dalishkova, he prayed. My sword is my oath.
“The fuck are you writing?” Igor demanded, kicking sand at him.
Severo tightened his grip on the prayer amulet in his hand until its sharp edges dug into his palm. He could not abide this boy.
“No? Let’s have a look then,” the leader insisted, making a grab for the paper. Severo shifted away. “It’s not good to keep secrets from us, Chicken.”
“I told you it’s not important. Just writing my thoughts.”
“Ah, you’re some artist like Olivier, eh? Writing poetry or some shit!” The scrappy boy’s voice broke as he giggled. “Thoughts don’t do you chickens good down here. That much I know.” He picked up a nearby bottle of whisky by the fire, biting the cork off and spitting it out to down a shot’s worth. Severo scribbled a brief note on it and returned to his letter, concentrating again on the flickering fire and the howling winds above.
He had kept a meticulous diary on every single boy and girl in the gang. It ranged from everything to what their interests were and what drew them together as a group, to the extent of their loyalties, personal motives, and what compromises they were willing to make. Most importantly, he had learned of their greatest fears and weaknesses—what kept them up at night, what put them into high-stakes competition with one another. He could recite every name, every fact they were willing to divulge about themselves and even some they were not; telepathy was permitted by the Dalishkova for reconnaissance. And yet of all the people he was able to catalogue during his time spent among them, there remained one final enigma. Igor.
The boy’s mind was solid as the stone walls around them. Severo had no idea how it was possible. Part of his initiation into the higher ranks of the Dalishkova was to overthrow the young leader of the Outlanders gang. But the mental brick wall he faced with every telepathic attempt to drill into the boy’s mind made it especially difficult. Such an element of access for this task was crucial—there was nothing to be gained from a conversation with someone like Igor. He had learned that much on the first day.
Over the next month, Severo began to wonder if something could be gleaned from Igor’s methods. There had to be a kind of pattern to his decision-making process. But at every turn, the boy proved to be the most unpredictable person he had ever encountered in his life. For example, the Outlanders had a reputation as cannibals, which kept a great many citizens of Cavarice in perpetual fear during their downtown reign. Severo quickly learned that it wasn’t true, or if it was, it was only true some of the time.
That’s why the rest of the gang feared him. The boy lived his life on a whim. Whatever he decided was law, and that law was subject to change on a daily basis. Sometimes he did his own dirty work, sometimes he had others do it. He could be merciful, but also ruthless. Most of the time he lacked any sign of fear, and other times, he seemed terrified—terrified of what, nobody knew.
And so Severo was beginning to suspect the Dalishkova had done something to him. No one’s mind was shattered enough to be blocked from psychic influence, even among patients in the Alabaster Bay Asylum. In order for Igor to have reached such a point, an extraction rite had to have been performed. And therein lay the problem—extraction rites were forbidden. To forcibly separate a soul from any physical incarnation went against the very laws of nature, and they were precisely what had gotten Archaides and his cult of followers banished from the Order months ago.
But if the Dalishkova were now engaging in such dark rituals themselves, could that mean they had been infected by the same corruption as the rest Cavarice? Severo shuddered to think so. They were among the first to arrive in Viktorium, and thus held a responsibility to maintain balance. If they abandoned that sacred duty, the future of the Order was at stake.
But first thing was first. Severo had to figure out how best to usurp Igor in the most indirect manner. To that end, Maxwell Ferrier seemed to be his only shot. He had observed the boy on several missions, and had taken quite a liking to him. Sure, there were moments the elder could be quite gullible; Lucien’s deception stood out like a sore thumb to the young knight. But Max was a good leader who consistently demonstrated the utmost resolve, even when faced with Igor’s intimidation tactics. If there were any chance at disposing of the Outlanders’ leader, Severo was convinced he would be the one.
His letter was urgent. After the evening operation with the Outlanders went down, the Barreau boys would no longer trust them. But if he could at least keep faith with Max, the Dalishkova might finally have the leverage they needed to take out Lucien Riviere before he became a very real threat to the city of Cavarice.
“You son of a bitch!” Olivier shouted, interrupting Severo’s thoughts. The tray of paints he’d carried in to finish his mural splattered to the floor the moment he caught sight of Igor’s handiwork. Splotches of multiple colors formed tiny pools in the sand. Some ran off into the fire, sparking up new flames.
“Your zebra looked a bit sick,” Igor remarked. “Just thought the soup might help, but he upchucked it all over. Sorry.”
“I’ve been working on this for over a month!” Olivier cried, visibly fighting back tears.
“Waste of time, chicken. Just like everything else down here. Fuck do you care, no one’s ever going to see it.”
“I’ll kill you!” His young second-in-command drew a shank he’d fashioned from an animal bone out of his waistband.
“Oh, now that’s bloody smart.”
“I will! I’ll do it!”
“Go ahead, chicken!” Igor spat, tossing down the bottle of whisky. “Come on! See what you got.” He tore off his undershirt and whipped it in the fire. Flames surged and engulfed the material, illuminating the boy’s face. The rage in his eyes was that of a lion whose authority had been challenged. A light sheen of sweat was forming on his skin, accentuating a tiny washboard of abdominal muscles that would not have been visible if the boy had eaten properly.
But despite the fact Igor was stronger, Severo detected an immediate disturbance in the air as Olivier’s anger cut through his meditation. Those paintings on the wall meant everything to him. In a gang of children where none had much left to live for, each had created their own unique sense of meaning and purpose through escapism. For Olivier, it was the paintings. Emilie crafted tiny dolls, and Camillo wrote stories. Regardless of the medium, these things were literally what kept them going. And Olivier was prepared to kill for it.
“Don’t think I won’t!” the boy shouted.
Severo’s heart hammered in his chest. Just as he felt himself on the verge of interfering in the fight and breaking a cardinal rule of the Dalishkova, a low guttural groan sounded from across the room. Georges was waking up.
“Shit. Now look what you’ve done, chicken!” Igor relaxed his fighting stance and stepped past the boy to knock the Dispatcher unconscious again. Big mistake. That’s when Olivier made his move. The young leader had brushed past his left. In a single fluid motion, the distraught young boy jabbed out hard with his bone shank, driving it hard into his superior’s stomach. Igor stopped with a hard gasp as the breath was forced from his lungs.
His skin flushed. Pupils dilated. The hard expression on his face immediately fell soft as his gaze shot downward. Blood squirted out around the white bone knife Olivier had plunged into him just above the belly button. He choked briefly, those lion’s eyes of rage still focused far across the room at Georges. Captain Georges, his last victim, and now witness to the boy’s demise. One awoke while the other fell asleep. Such irony. Poetic justice. Fitting in every symbolic sense.
Or at least that’s what Severo foresaw before making the decision to interfere. It became clear in Olivier’s eyes from the moment Igor abandoned his guard. There was no question. He was going to make his move, and there was no stopping him—at least not physically, which put the young knight into quite a difficult position. He did admire Olivier’s determination. But the boy was not Max, and it was not Igor’s time to die. There would be no time to get up and shove anyone aside. No getting around it. Fuck.
Severo closed his eyes and reached forth with his mind. In the calm of the flickering darkness, he saw the young Outlander across the fire with the bone shank in hand, ready for the kill. A quiet rage stirred deep in his gut. The boy’s breathing was ragged, his arm tense. Spine rigid. Stance staggered. Severo felt all of these things as his own, from the shoulder down to the elbow, to the hand which held the weapon in its merciless grasp.
The air changed when Igor passed by. Severo snapped open his eyes—pupils pure white with power—and took control of Olivier at the last second, forcing the arc of the boy’s arm wider to the right. His fated jab missed Igor by quite a wide margin. The young knight immediately cut his psychic hold on the boy as he recoiled in shock. Of course Olivier was aware what had happened on a surface level; he missed. But the manner in which his arm was redirected went completely against the instruction of his own mind, and that was a realization the Dalishkova had been warned never to stick around for when seizing control.
Olivier’s arm lingered in the air a moment. Igor took advantage of this and grabbed the boy’s wrist, hurling him around against the wall. Drove a knee into his crotch. Uppercut his nose. Took his neck and slammed his head back into the rock. The leader’s grip was like iron on his subordinate’s throat. With his left hand, he squeezed Olivier’s wrist until he at last dropped the shank. Georges groaned something unintelligible across the room through the gag over his mouth.
“Shut him up, will you!” Igor snapped at Severo.
Dear God, what have I done? the young knight thought. But it was better to tend to Georges and keep his head down. He had already risked drawing too much attention to himself.
“You,” Igor spat, crushing Olivier’s neck beneath his grasp as the boy squirmed and choked for air, “have been a naughty little chicken!”
“Please!” Olivier cried. “Please don’t, I didn’t mean to-”
“Shut up!” He rammed his knee into the boy’s crotch again and bent down to pick up the bone shank, resuming his grip on his throat. “What’s this, eh chicken? Fuck do you call this!”
“It’s nothing, I swear!”
“Oh, you hear that Sev?” Igor giggled. “Nothing. Just like your poetry! And this rat’s paintings. This is a lovely knife, by the way. Perfect for gutting bad chickens.”
“Don’t kill me, please!”
“Now why would I do that? You’re more good to us alive, chicken. Just like Georges over there. But I’ll cut you a little deal, yeah. I’ll only take one of your balls now,” the leader said, running the shank up the boy’s inner thigh, “and I’ll save the other for desert. How about it, chicken?” He made a slurping noise. “Bad chickens make good soup.”
Severo sighed. “Igor, let him go.”
For a moment, the young Dalishkova drew a blank. He had hoped not to get involved. But seeing as how interference was forbidden and he had already chosen to cross that line by saving Igor’s life—passive though the involvement was—this hardly qualified. So why did it bother him so much?
“You need every man you can get when we take the wall tonight,” he said. “Leave him with me. I’ll watch him.” What the hell are you doing, Sev? Stop it before you’re in over your head.
“And why should I do that?”
The knight hesitated. “I know why you always go for the cocks…why you call everyone ‘chicken’.”
It was a wild guess. But he had suspected it for some time. There was a rage in Igor that seemed very much sexually driven. Every time he spoke of torturing someone, it always had to do with mutilating their genitals. He called everyone ‘chicken’, a term which seemed to insinuate they were afraid, equally as much as he used it in place of the word ‘cock’. He seemed self-assured, confident when he could display such power to everyone else. Why not? It certainly kept them in line.
But denying him that pleasure was an enormous risk that had the potential to rip a gigantic hole in the boy’s fragile ego, and Severo knew this. It was also something he was hoping for. If he could make enough of a psychic dent in the boy’s mind—no matter how small—there was a far greater chance his mission would succeed. There was no convincing him through conversation. Or maybe…
Igor’s expression softened as he loosened his grip on Olivier. Then he reared back and brutally pummeled the boy in the stomach and chest six times, uppercut his face again, then landed one final blow to his jaw. There was an audible crack as the boy cried and spit up blood everywhere. Igor huffed with a smirk and stood back, appearing satisfied at his work.
“Now that’s a pretty painting, chickens.” He dragged his former second-in-command over to Severo and threw him down in the sand at his feet. “He’s all yours. Get your team ready for the tunnels. We march at eight o’clock sharp. Congratulations, Sev. You’re my new deputy. Means you’re not a chicken anymore.”
The young leader bent down and grabbed up his bottle of whisky from beside the fire and downed another swig. Paused a moment as if in thought, then hurled it into the flames where it crashed and exploded in a satisfying fireball. He grinned contentedly to himself and stormed out.
Severo felt guilty. It had been a cheap shot on his part, and it got Olivier beaten up in the process. The depth of shame Igor must have felt at such an attack on his manhood—and, more importantly, his authority—was not something the young knight could even begin to imagine. Still, even without reading the boy’s mind, it taught him one thing: Igor had buttons that could be pressed. And the more he became aware of what those buttons were, the easier it would be to uncover exactly what the Dalishkova had done to him.
But all things would come in time.
The young knight ran a hand through his straight black hair and knelt down over Olivier, who was sobbing quietly. It was difficult to clear his mind of all that had occurred. Worse still were the dangers and trials yet to come. None of it weighed easy on the mind. But he continued to take refuge in The Oath, and that was all he could do for now.
Severo kissed the boy’s head and clasped his hands together with the amulet to pray blessings of healing on him. The verses also had a pacifying effect on the mind, in case he should ever begin questioning why he had lost control of his own body earlier. Whatever the knight said would make sense. Even if Olivier had no faith, the amulet would ensure his belief. That was, after all, the Dalishkova way; belief was but a tool to manipulate and exercise power over lesser beings.
Given enough time and training, a Dalishkova Knight could make anyone see and believe in whatever their mind had the ability to conjure up. Severo had at first found it a terrifying prospect. Within him existed the potential to cause endless horror, suffering, and agony. But during his time with the Outlanders, he had come to find that so much good could be done with his gift as well.
Olivier was beginning to calm down.
“Severo, is that you? I don’t understand…my pain is gone.”
The knight smiled. “Rest, my friend.”
The boy unclasped his hands and twirled the amulet necklace above his face.
“Are there really gods in Viktorium?” he asked. “Somehow, I think I can feel them watching over me.”
“They watch over us all.”
Severo didn’t believe it himself, but he hoped so. He really hoped so.