House of Rats – Part 10

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.

“Nothing important.”

“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.”

“Excuse me?”

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.

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House of Rats – Part 9

Max returned twenty minutes later to the safety of Barreau Orphanage, cradling the cat he had named Marie Antoinette in his arms. It had taken a few moments to track her down; she was startled by some lunatic yelling in a nearby alleyway, and Max thought it best not to approach the building for the time being anyway in case the Dispatchers got to Quentin. His heart sunk when he peered around the corner and saw the patrol car speed by. But he hadn’t heard any sirens on the way back, which he took as a good sign.

“Bernard, you better have gotten rid of them,” the elder sighed. He was about to proceed up the front steps when he noticed several red blotches of blood and mucus drying on the sidewalk. “Shit!” Max rushed the rest of the way up and banged furiously on the front door. Please don’t tell me they took him, he thought, squeezing the cat tight to his chest. After several more bangs, Bernard finally answered the door.

“Welcome back! You just missed them,” he said, backing up as Max rushed in and slammed the door behind them.

“They took him?” the elder asked, tearing off his head covering.

“Surprisingly, no. He’s back in your room, said something about them receiving a more important call about an anomaly in the courthouse. I was afraid they’d get to you.”

“Not a chance.”

“I see you’ve brought a friend.”

“Oh, yeah,” Max smiled. “Thought we could use a pet around here. I found her wandering around in the old factory next door. Her name is Marie Antoinette.”

“Marie Antoinette?”

“I was lost in thought, she jumped out at me and almost took off my head, so…”

“Good one,” Bernard laughed. “You’re sure she doesn’t have fleas?”

“Ah,” Max smiled. “Get me a phase unit.”

“For what?”

“You’ll see.”

Bernard stepped into the hall and found Tomas toying with one of the units again, as he always liked to do. The interim elder tore it off his wrist. Max assumed something must have gone down while he was away that had him so frustrated at the boy. He tossed it over, and Max strapped it on.

“What are you doing? You’ll kill the poor cat!”

“No I won’t. Here, you just turn it down to the lowest possible setting. Put the knob just above the power switch, and…” The phase unit suddenly sparked up, and the cat let out a screech. “Shit, hold her still!” Bernard managed to keep hold of the animal as she struggled to break free. Max carefully passed his hand over the cat, letting the blue bolts make contact with her black fur. She immediately appeared to calm down and began purring after several passes.

“I think she likes it,” Bernard smiled.

Et voila! No more fleas.” Max switched the unit off and gave it back to Tomas, who was standing in the doorway waiting to tinker with it again. “Put it away. It’s almost lunch time.”

“Aw, man!”

“Awww,” he mocked. “Do it! Children,” the elder rolled his eyes, turning back to Bernard. “What did the Dispatchers say?”

“It was Edmond. He took a look around the hall-”

“All the equipment was put away?”

“Not exactly,” Bernard sighed. The cat leapt out of his arms and scampered under a nearby bed. “Edmond came at me with his phase unit, Tomas raised his to defend me.”

“Goddamn it, Tomas!” Max yelled.

“It’s all right,” Bernard assured him. “They didn’t seem worried about that. They just wanted to talk to Quentin.”

“What did they say to him?”

“I don’t know. They dragged him outside.”

“Dragged him?”

“Threw him.”

“Yeesh. Well that explains the blood on the sidewalk.”

“Yeah,” Bernard cringed. “They busted his mouth pretty good.”

“So he just ran back to my room…why?”

“You had better talk to him. He seemed really upset, and I know Quentin’s not the type to break that easy.”

“All right…” Max trailed off. For a moment, he thought back to what happened down in the old courthouse, and that Bernard mentioned something about the Dispatchers leaving due to some emergency with an anomaly. He hoped that wherever his guardian angel had zapped off to, it was somewhere safe. Don’t lose your head, the voice had said.

“You okay Max?”

“Yeah, no…just something I thought I saw at the courthouse. This thing…this boy…or at least I think it was a boy, I can’t be sure. A squad of Dispatchers showed up there chasing it. They thought it was an anomaly, but it was way off their charts from anything they’d encountered before. The lights were flickering a lot. Far more than usual. And in between each one, this thing would appear and knocked them all out until I could get to the records room. A kid with a shaved head…”

“Man, you sure you’re not seeing an Igor mirage from being in that desert all morning?” Bernard laughed.

“I swore I saw something though. Like maybe a Dalishkova gauntlet, or-”

“A Dalishkova gauntlet? No one’s ever got their hands on one of those!”

“I know what I saw.”

“Whatever you say,” Bernard feigned a yawn.

“Bastard!” Max chuckled, shoving him. “Well, I suppose I’ll talk to Quentin. Make sure the boys are ready for lunch, I’m starved.”

“Already done.”

“Be right back.”

The young elder lumbered up the stairwell to his flat. His feet ached with every step and he needed another shower. It seemed that he had come home to far more questions than answers, and it wasn’t even lunchtime. Of course he had yet to encounter Lucien down at the mess hall, which was another conversation he wasn’t looking forward to. Still, Max braced himself for whatever came next, though he reckoned there wasn’t much left that could surprise him after a day like this.

He knocked on the door to be sure Quentin was ready to talk first. He had no idea how the Dispatchers would have found him if he’d used the crawl space he had been so adamant about, though some of the officers were known to tear up the walls and floorboards if they were desperate enough. Max didn’t sense that was the case here. It was quite possible he had gone quietly.

“Quent?” Max called. He could hear muffled cries coming from the far wall close to the window. “Are you all right?” The elder’s heart was pounding. He hated seeing any of the boys so upset. A painful lump began to form in his throat as he became aware of the contrast between the boys laughing and playing downstairs, and Quentin crying on the other side of his door. They must have been rough with him, the elder thought.

“I’ll be fine!” he called.

“Mind if I come in?”

There was a long pause.

“It’s your room,” the boy whimpered.

Max opened the door and peered around the edge. Quentin was sitting up on the radiator with his knees drawn up to his chest, gazing absently out the window. He seemed to be tracing random patterns in the condensation on the glass with his fingertips. Every now and then, a shiver tore through his fragile body as he struggled not to cry. The elder shut the door and stepped over to join him. Quentin shifted his feet over to the sill so Max could sit. Both were hesitant to speak further.

The young elder placed a finger on the left end of the glass, tracing a curved line upwards and swirling a small design. The orphan beside him formed one going down on the opposite side. Keeping his finger pressed, Max drew an angled line over to the right. Quentin curved his up to the left. Max looked over at him and decided to try writing a word.

Hello.

The boy managed a thin smile and replied.

Hey.

Want to talk?

Not really. I just hurt. A lot.

Max felt his lower lip start to tremble and wiped away the emerging tears.

You’re my brother. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I want you to be okay.

Thanks. I will be. Don’t be sorry.

You know I love you all…right?

Quentin nodded, and the two pulled one another into an embrace. Max cared about his orphans more than most of them knew. They were his only family, after all; of course it was rare he ever acknowledged it. He tried to be a leader more than a father figure to them, though sometimes the latter got the better of him. Once they let go, Quentin leaned onto Max’s shoulder and looked out the window as the elder draped an arm around him.

“Hey Max?” the boy asked.

“What is it?”

“You know how Lucien said you were hiding an Outlander?”

“Yeah,” the elder replied curiously. “I mean, that’s what you were before we got your documents forged. But you’re here now. You’re a legitimate Cavarice citizen.”

“But I am an Outlander.” He shifted toward Max, pulling up his shirt to reveal a large branding scar of the letter ‘O’ in the middle of his chest. “This is what the Dispatchers did to my kind when they exiled us. And they warned us if we ever came back…they would do far worse.” He took the elder’s hand and held it over his heart.

Max swallowed hard. “I promise I would never let that happen again. Not to you or anyone else. You’re one of us.”

Quentin still appeared troubled.

“There’s something I have to tell you…not right now. But soon,” the boy sighed. “When the time is right.”

He looked as if he might cry again. He didn’t. But something else bothered Max about this particular expression, and how the boy’s grasp on his hand suddenly tightened. There was a deep fear in his eyes. He recalled seeing the same in the face of Captain Georges just before Igor stabbed him. Igor. The elder trusted Quentin to speak of it when he was ready of course, though it was not easy to watch him being torn up inside. As Max lay his palm flat over the boy’s chest, he felt his heart pounding away like a locomotive. The most he could do was reassure him everything would be all right. He shuddered to think even that might not be enough.

“There’s nothing I can do, is there?”

“No. But I’ll be fine.”

“Okay…”

“So we should get to lunch, eh?” Quentin deflected, pulling away and heading for the door.

“Yeah. I just need another shower. I’ll be down in a bit.”

“Thank you…for always being there.”

“Anytime.”

The boy left. Max walked over and shut the door, listening to him skip down the stairs back to his bed in the hall. He turned around and leaned back against it. Slid to the floor, held his head in his hands. More questions plagued his mind, even as he opened his eyes again to stare absently at the messages still scrawled on the window pane. What the bloody hell is happening in this orphanage? But he didn’t want to dwell on it anymore. He got up, stripped down again, and took another shower.

And this time, he didn’t turn on the radio.

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