Night Of The Wolf – Part 19

“I’m telling you, he knows too much!” Max raged. “About the tunnel, about the Outlanders, Quentin, everything. Every word that came out of the bastard’s mouth was like he was accusing us of something!”

The young elder had been pacing back and forth in the office for the last twenty minutes, trying to convince Lucien and Bernard that the journalist he’d shared drinks with the previous night was a major threat to them all. Lucien kept smirking in that stupid way of his while Bernard crossed his arms and huffed. But no matter how much Max tried to make his point, neither of them seemed to believe him.

“Would you relax?” Lucien chuckled. “Benoit Laurent is nothing more than a bloody hack, and everyone hates him. The Dispatchers even have a price on his head. You really think he’d go running to tell them anything we’ve done?”

“If it clears his name, I wouldn’t put it past him!”

“Not that I agree with Lucien,” Bernard sighed, “but he’s right. They would have done something by now. Edmond knew about the stolen phase unit Tomas had after his visit yesterday. He barely said a word about it.”

“That was before the attack on the wall. If they’re running inventory of these parts, sooner or later they’re going to question where we got them and come after us. And for some reason, Igor didn’t take the ones we stole, which throws a pretty heavy wrench in things!”

“Seriously?” Lucien’s eyes widened. Max rushed out the open door, grabbing the old potato sack full of stolen wares from the boys’ hall and returned promptly. He dumped the three phase units onto the counter and flung the bag on the floor.

“Any further questions?”

“What specifically did Benoit say to you?”

Max sighed. “The official story on record is that we were kidnapped and held hostage by the Outlanders. He deduced that the only way any of us could have been taken was if we were in some way using the subway tunnel in the old Steamworks building.”

“Or we could just be using the building itself,” Bernard added.

“Either way, we’re not supposed to be there.”

“Doesn’t matter. The blame falls on the Dispatchers for not having sealed the tunnel,” Lucien said. “Besides, one of our poor, helpless children could have escaped and gotten hurt on the tracks. Prime material for a lawsuit.”

“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I? What answers did you give him, Maxwell!” the lanky boy shoved him.

“Nothing he didn’t already know. How many phase units did you give to Igor?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How many phase units, Lucien!” Max seethed. “You must have given them something, otherwise how else did they manage to blow a giant fucking hole in the city wall?!”

“All right, can we not do this now?” Bernard sighed, stepping between them. “We all agreed Barreau is neutral territory. This office is for diplomatic resolutions, not wrestling matches.”

Max narrowed his eyes. “And what about the ten phase units that went missing from the precinct? Antoine thought we had one in our possession last night,” he said, pushing past Bernard. “Sure, it could have been anyone. But why accuse us? He named you specifically.”

“Hello!” Bernard grinned, gesturing wildly to the three phase units left on the counter. “Seems you’ve forgotten our more pressing matter.”

The two boys glared at him a second, incredulous that there could be anything more important than their current spat. Max was just about to concede until a furious banging sounded on the front door. All three of them jumped out of their skin and looked at one another. Lucien rushed to the window and tore back the curtain to see who was there.

“It’s Edmond,” he smirked. “I’m out, au revoir, have fun!” The insufferable boy dashed out the open office door to make a clean break for the back exit past the staircase before either of the elders could catch him.

“This isn’t over!” Max yelled, charging after the lanky bastard, only to have the door slammed in his face. “Goddamn it! Bernard, lock the back door. Now!” He whirled around and tossed his key ring over to his second-in-command as he passed by him, making way for the boys’ hall. “Hide our shit, the Dispatchers are here!” Every child in the room immediately dropped what they were doing and scrambled to gather up their stolen wares. An assortment of old rugs they kept placed strategically about the floor were thrown back to reveal trapdoors which served as storage spaces. In a matter of seconds, phase units, badges, trench coats, radios, and other Dispatcher gear were being shoved into them amid a cacophony of anxious voices.

“Fuck!” Max rushed back to the office, nearly forgetting about the three phase units he’d dumped onto the counter as the banging on the front door continued. “Please, just one bloody second,” he cried. Tears streamed down his face as he loaded the things back into the potato sack. Stupid. The elder was not one to cry under tense circumstances, but considering that everything seemed to be going to shit lately, such involuntary responses must have got the better of him. He swiped the tears with his sleeve and rushed back to the hall, clamoring to fit the bag into the space before Bernard answered the door. The rest of the boys kicked the rugs back into place and returned to stand at attention in front of their beds. Max heard Edmond’s team charge in before he’d even had the chance to turn around.

“Ah, Ferrier!” the lieutenant chimed. “You just can’t stop showing up on my radar, can you?”

Max scowled. “Believe me, it’s not as if I try.”

“House calls aren’t a pleasant experience for either of us,” Edmond sighed. “I prefer to avoid them when I can. But given recent events, I’m sure you understand the necessity.”

“What I understand is that one of my boys is dead and Lucien is off founding his own orphanage at the corner library up the street! Why don’t you go give him a house call? You’re wasting your time here. We have nothing to hide.”

“Is that so?” the lieutenant narrowed his eyes. “We found Quentin hiding away in the crawl space of your room just the other day-”

“Don’t you dare speak his name!” Max seethed.

“Of course. Forgive me,” Edmond said. “All the same…we were missing ten of our phase units from inventory the other night, for a total of thirteen. Three were confiscated that morning from myself, Captain Georges, and Isaac here by the Outlanders. Some were undoubtedly used to construct the bomb they used to break in, and we managed to retrieve four from the gang members we killed. Judging by the blast radius on the wall, we estimate that five units were detonated at maximum capacity. That leaves-”

“Four. I can do the math.” The elder shuddered. Three of those lay under his very feet, which meant all the missing units were accounted for…except one. Where the hell could it be? Not that it mattered much. Max was certain they didn’t have it, unless Lucien in all of his craftiness had somehow managed to smuggle it onto the property—of course, he wouldn’t have put it past his former friend.

“Look, I don’t mean to place you under suspicion-”

“That’s exactly what you mean,” Max sniffed, wiping his nose. It was still stuffy from the tears.

“You have obviously acquired older models of phase units before,” the lieutenant stepped toward him. “I’ve no idea how you managed it, but I’m sure you’re well aware that the possession of such equipment is illegal for civilians. We have come across a few units being sold in back room black market deals during previous investigations-”

“But-”

“I’ve resolved to look the other way for as long as I can. The Barreau District is a dangerous place, and out of principle, I must allow you some form of protection. I’ll spare you a search for now, but those units must be tracked. Given my generosity…I trust you’ll keep the settings low and report to me all serial numbers of any units that may pass into your hands. Can you do that?”

“Yes…of course,” Max swallowed. “We have two older models currently in our possession,” he said, nervously making his way over to a shelving unit aside one of the stone support columns. He rummaged across an assortment of old radio parts and picked it out from behind a pile of books. “This is the one we were caught with last night. Florian gave it to me and then ran off. I’m guessing he’s with Lucien now, but who knows.” He watched Edmond pull out a pad and paper. “This is number…006374.”

“And the other?”

“Tomas has that one, he’s always tinkering with it,” the elder sighed. “Tomas…Tomas?” Max gazed over the faces of the boys under his watch, who all seemed to be making bewildered glances at one another. He frantically checked the ranks, but the child was not amongst them. “Shit! Any of you know where…oh, right. He left with Lucien the other night.” Several of the boys sunk their heads. How could he have forgotten?

“At this hour, I believe I might have some idea where he is,” Bernard cringed through clenched teeth.

“Well let’s hear it!” Max demanded.

“Private affairs of a…certain nature.”

“Pardon?”

“That thing he did every morning when he crawled-”

“Oh! Right…let’s not embarrass anyone.” Max felt a cold sweat come over him as he looked again to the boys, some of whom hung their heads a bit lower than usual to hide the flush of red on their cheeks. For one consecutive week during the summer, he recalled coming downstairs to wake everyone up and noticed a rhythmic movement beneath the sheets of a different boy’s bed each morning, after which Tomas would emerge and slink back to his own mattress. He had been performing oral sex on several of them for some time. In an orphanage of hormonal kids, Max figured it was bound to happen now and again. Out of respect for their privacy, he would whistle quietly and wait a few moments until they’d finished their business before ringing the bell. But where most were content to talk about girls and exchange dirty magazines, Tomas seemed strictly more interested in males.

“If you have the serial number, that’s all I need,” Edmond assured him.

“Anyone remember that stupid number?” the elder asked.

“I do,” the shy, red-headed boy named Louis said. “It’s 006981.”

“Thank you,” Edmond nodded.

“Wonder how he remembers those two middle numbers,” one of the older boys cracked. Max slapped him. “Ow!”

“Shut up.”

“Well then,” Edmond coughed, “seeing as this was just a routine visit, and you’ve provided the information I needed, I see no reason to bother you any further. We will of course be increasing security detail in this district over the coming days up until the gala celebrations. If I deem it necessary to conduct a more thorough search, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you may want to keep an eye on your own ‘inventory’,” he nodded toward the boys. “I wouldn’t want you to lose another.”

Max frowned. “You’re so charming.”

“So I’ve been told. Cheerio,” the lieutenant said. He moved for the doorway, but stopped short. “Oh, one last matter I think should be brought to your attention. Your Outlander boy who was killed-”

“Quentin,” Max corrected him.

“Yes…a blind elderly gentleman came by the precinct earlier claiming to be his grandfather. We released the body to him.”

“What?!”

“You said you didn’t want it, so I saw no harm in doing so, and since family takes priority in such matters, I thought you deserved to know.”

“He doesn’t have any family, why do you think he was staying at Barreau? There were no surviving relatives listed on his citizenship papers! Or didn’t you bother to do your job?”

“I would not normally disclose this information, but standard Dispatcher procedure is incineration of any deceased bodies that come into our custody, whether they are released to proper relatives or not. His name is Fernand Vaugrenard if you’d care to look him up, perhaps pay a visit.”

“Thank you, I will,” Max breathed.

“Good. Well I’ve got to be going, so I’ll get out of your hair. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

With that, Bernard led the young lieutenant out the front door and promptly locked it behind him. As Max watched the rest of the boys disband to resume their daily leisure activities, he couldn’t help but feel overcome with a strong sense of loneliness. There was a certain finality to the knowledge that Quentin was now truly gone. So long as his body remained, he’d thought, perhaps there might be some way in Viktorium to…no. That’s silly. People die here, just as they do in the real world. That night was proof.

And yet if there were any truth to Benoit Laurent’s articles, which—considering the man’s remarkable knowledge, there had to be—maybe, just maybe, it was possible that some part of Quentin was still alive somewhere. Max had also observed that he was among one of the few in Viktorium who aged. Bernard didn’t seem to, and neither did most of the orphan boys. But all of the Dispatchers aged normally. In fact, he couldn’t recall a single Dispatcher on the force who appeared immortal. I still can’t remember my own death…if Quentin were to come back, would he remember his?

Max shivered and did his best to shake such questions from his mind. Unable to do so, he paced back to his office and dug out the bottle of whiskey he kept stashed in the bottom drawer of his desk for such occasions. Bernard came through the door a second later and grabbed two shot glasses from the corner shelf.

“Read my mind,” the African boy smiled. “That was pretty close.”

“Yeah,” Max smirked.

“So they released Quentin’s body. That was pretty damn quick.”

“And unauthorized, as far as I can tell.” He tore open the center drawer of the desk and slapped the dead boy’s citizenship documents down to look over them again. “Yeah…not a single living relative listed. No mention of a Fernand Vaugrenard anywhere.”

“Must be a new arrival,” Bernard winced as he downed his shot. “Damn.”

“I’ll look into it later. No time to head to Immigration Affairs now. We’ve got preparations to make for La Cour’s welcome gala. It’s being moved to Verdevale, which means we’ll need all hands on deck. That also means smoothing things over with Lucien, yet again,” Max rolled his eyes and downed another shot. “All right, I’m not about to lose any more boys. Where the bloody hell is Tomas?!”

 

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 18

Antoine Sartre sat in his usual dark, lonely corner of The Green Fairy, a local dive bar on the outskirts of the Metropolies District, sipping his usual brand of cheap, watered-down absinthe. The past week seemed to have changed his life for the worst, and even more so after the attack on the wall two nights prior. He had suspected for some time that corruption ran rampant throughout the ranks of his fellow Dispatchers, but being sent on shakedown assignments through a middleman by a mysterious operative who called himself ‘The Wolf’ was not his idea of justice.

“Justice,” the brown-haired, crew-cut boy muttered. It was the entire reason he’d defied his parents to join the now defunct Dispatchers Training Programme at the tender age of thirteen. Justice for his sister Isabelle, justice for Severo, justice for all the lost children who had wound up missing because of those Dalishkova scum. Back then of course, he had been quite the bullheaded child. His life up until now was one motivated by revenge. His father always said he required a certain modicum of restraint, and for good reason.

Antoine’s walls had been covered with reports of missing children, case files from the investigation into both his sister’s disappearance as well as that of Severo. He had grown obsessed with finding out what happened to them. But now with the reappearance of a boy two nights ago who fit Severo’s description, it seemed he had the answer he’d most feared all along—the Dalishkova were a cult who needed to be exterminated by any means necessary. And Edmond’s willingness to look the other way after seeing his old friend would put the entire force in jeopardy, which made him an enemy of the state. His new benefactor seemed to agree.

Five nights ago, Antoine, while sloshed out of his wits, had been approached outside the bar by a balding man in his mid-forties who volunteered information on alleged Dalishkova agents infiltrating the political ranks of high officials in Cavarice. If it were true, it gave them the power to influence Dispatcher operations throughout the city, placing them all at risk. The culling, he’d explained, was to begin with bringing to justice any Dispatchers who might be sympathetic to the Dalishkova cause. In exchange, Antoine would be well compensated for his loyalty and receive a promotion at the end of his quarterly term.

The eighteen year-old took a hit off his cigar, then another sip of his drink as he listened to Andre Casanov spewing another round of useless drivel over the airwaves from the corner radio. In all honesty, he hated this bar and most of its working class patrons, but the quiet, shadowy atmosphere was a nice comfort away from his usual duties. It also unfortunately happened to be the middleman’s preferred meeting place. He checked his pocket watch again. Any minute now, the portly old fellow would stroll through the back entrance and take a seat across from him, slide him an envelope, and be on his way. Sure enough at exactly twelve noon, the bell clanged on the door and in he came.

“Hey,” Antoine greeted the well-dressed man as he plopped down on the green leather, ejecting a hiss of air from a cut in the cushion. The boy stifled a laugh, but the gentleman eyed him sternly without saying a word. He set his briefcase in his lap and tossed an envelope on the table, just as expected. This time, he didn’t leave right away. Antoine went to grab the paper, but the man slammed a hand on it to stop him. “What the hell?”

“Boss knows you’re not going to like this, but he trusts you to get the job done. The payment he’s offering is generous. You’re going to have to earn your keep this time.”

“I fuckin’ earned it last night!”

The man snatched the envelope back. “The Barreau boys were in your custody. You should have kept it that way. Anyone against us is a traitor to Cavarice. From now on, you get half with the assignment, and the rest when you’ve completed your mission. Understood?”

“Fine,” Antoine clenched his teeth. “But you know I must respect the hierarchy, lest we raise suspicion. Unless you’ve got any convenient ways to dissolve that and grant me a more immediate promotion, I’m still bound by certain rules.”

“Then consider this your promotion,” the man smirked, releasing the envelope and sliding out of the booth. “By the way…The Wolf himself will be accompanying you this time, along with Solomon. Try to make a good impression, kid.”

“Shit.” Antoine closed his eyes and swallowed the lump in his throat, waiting for the man to exit before tearing open the envelope. He gulped down the rest of his absinthe to prepare himself for its contents. Not as if there was any such thing as being prepared these days. Screw it. He checked around the bar to be sure none of the usual nosey patrons were skulking about. Andre Casanov’s grating voice continued with his broadcast, so the Dispatcher leaned over and turned the dial to more favorable station that played mellow jazz. Fitting enough.

He stuck the cigar back in his mouth and carefully emptied out the contents to look over the report. His heart began to thud deep in his chest when he saw the photograph of his next target. A cold sweat overcame him, along with the sudden urge to vomit. This would be a promotion all right. No wonder they’d upped his pay grade. He shivered and flipped the page over to note any possible charges. Debauchery. Really? Even Andre Casanov sounded like a more appealing target, if that were the case. The aging poof with his undeserved radio show and green hair and that frilly monstrosity of a button-down was begging to be put out of his misery. Hell, even a bar full of screaming patrons throwing alcohol at one another. Anything to distract Antoine from that familiar picture and the name alongside it. The boy was one of his closest friends, if not the most loyal Dispatcher on the force.

“No…I can’t do this. Not him,” Antoine shuddered. “I can’t!” Isaac. Why Isaac? What made his private homosexual activities such a threat? Then an even worse thought came to mind. Me, the boy thought. What if I’m next? Certainly will be if I don’t do this. “Fuck…FUCK!” Antoine screamed, swatting his glass of absinthe off the table, where it hit the bar stand a shattered into a million pieces.

He stuffed the envelope in his jacket and stormed out.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 17

Edmond Fache slumped onto his desk at the precinct with his chin resting on the knuckles of one hand while he twirled Severo’s prayer amulet in the other. He found himself toying with it ever more frequently since that morning, when they’d all been called down to General Rodin’s office for a firm reprimand. He had been almost certain he wouldn’t have the motivation to process every individual report from the Dispatchers stationed at the wall the previous night, and yet somehow, he’d managed to blaze through fifteen of them before the lunch hour. It felt strange to ponder, but it seemed that shiny hunk of metal in his palm was increasing his ability to concentrate on heavier tasks he might have otherwise put off. Whatever works, he thought, setting it aside.

His mind drifted back to the events of the previous night, and to the long lost friend who had showed up seemingly out of nowhere. The last time he recalled seeing Severo was when they were both about eight years old. Pontius, having fought the Dalishkova for years, made the mistake of vacationing in Helias. Severo couldn’t stop talking about when he discovered Edmond’s parents had planned a trip there in the early spring. He’d begged his father to go. Even Edmond himself was excited to show his best friend around and help him reconnect with his heritage as much as he could. Severo was born in Helias after all, and the longing in his heart was stronger than anything else.

On the last night of their stay at the Hotel Apollonius, they’d been leaning over the balcony of their second story room to listen to the waves on the beach and watch the stars twinkle overhead. The plesiosaurs were still eating the last of their fill for the evening, raising their heads now and again to let out the gentlest of roars. A calm breeze drifted in from the Sea of Helene, bringing with it the aroma of salt combined with fresh fish from the merchant markets up the street. The atmosphere was so serene, yet bittersweet. Severo’s excitement still had not waned. But something in particular about their conversation from that night stood out to Edmond, and he would never forget it.

“I really want to visit the temple! I hope my mom will be there. You think she will?”

“I don’t know. The temple is off limits to visitors.”

“But I was born in Helias. I’m sure I could get you in.”

“I don’t think so. And I’m starting Dispatcher training in a couple years, so this is the last time we’ll be able to come here.”

“Oh…promise we’ll always be friends, Ed?”

“Of course we will, stupid. Why do you ask? You sound sad.”

“I’m just homesick.”

“It’ll be all right, I promise. Tomorrow we’ll run off on our own and meet our parents back at the boat, and we’ll have the best day ever! We’ll remember it and talk about it a lot until the day you can come back.”

“Father would never let me return to Helias…”

Edmond had placed an arm around his friend to console him. Perhaps he had changed the subject, he couldn’t remember. But it didn’t matter what was said after that. The next morning, the two of them had run back to the docks and stood in line to board the Cassius. They even held hands so they wouldn’t be separated. Edmond was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that he recalled Severo boarding the vessel. Yes. They’d spoken on the return trip. Sometime that evening, when the last green rays of Viktorium’s sun were fading from the sky, the boy said something about exploring the lower decks and ran off. By the time the ship docked on the south port of Cavarice, he had vanished.

Pontius searched the vessel from top to bottom, along with two teams of Dispatchers. They shone spotlights at the water and along each side of the hull. Another team dove into the sea. They threw out crates, overturned tables, tore down the sails, chopped apart barrels of rum, dumped all the remaining cargo. No single inch of the ship was left unexplored that night, and yet…nothing. And the more they searched and called his name, the more enraged Pontius became. He shouted at the crew, held the captain down by his neck and choked him on the wheel until the Dispatchers pulled him away. The next morning, he had the entire vessel scrapped. Still nothing.

Some weeks later, reports came in from Helias about the body of an eight year-old boy who had washed up on the shores near the statue of the Salt God. He matched Severo’s description to a tee—raven black hair, pale skin, wearing the exact same clothes. The pictures were published in the Viktorium Free Press a week later. Sure enough, it was Severo. But how could that be? He had boarded the Cassius, and there were enough witnesses to corroborate the fact. Even if Edmond’s memory indeed failed him on the events of that day, the boy’s name was logged in the passenger manifest for the return trip. And he certainly could not have floated all the way back to Helias, given that they were closer in range that evening to Cavarice when he’d claimed he was going to explore the lower decks. None of it made sense. Then again, few things did when it came to the Dalishkova.

“‘Father would never let me return’,” Edmond whispered. “I’m sorry, Sev.” He remembered, too, how his own father had scolded him for losing his friend. His mother, naturally, favored a more mild approach. Everyone had seemed keen on pointing fingers that night, even the passengers who hadn’t known the boy. But Edmond did blame himself, and had for a long time. Yet suddenly, here his childhood friend was, back from the dead? Impossible! The sound of footsteps nearing his office prompted the second lieutenant to shove the prayer amulet back in his desk drawer.

“Sir?” Isaac appeared to address him timidly with a knock on the door frame.

“What is it?” Edmond sighed.

“A rather curious old man is asking about the bodies.”

“What bodies?”

“Um…attack on the wall…last night, boom boom? Captain Georges, Outlanders blew through the west gate-”

“Yes, yes, I’m awake, thank you much,” Edmond cut him off, yawning again. “Sorry, I’ve been swamped by all the paperwork General Rodin wants on his desk tomorrow.”

“Looks like you’ve got a lot done for the evil bastard.” Isaac raised his eyebrows at the giant stack in the outgoing tray. “I thought you hated processing reports.”

“I do, but…something about that amulet Severo gave me last night…I’ve never felt more motivated in all my life. Can’t explain it.”

“Yeah, well just don’t let Antoine see it. You know how he feels about the rivalry and all.”

“Yes,” Edmond said, rising from his chair to circle around the desk. “His sister was taken by the Dalishkova too.”

“Taken? I thought she-”

“Drowned? I just saw my best childhood friend last night for the first time in seven years, Isaac. I looked him square in the eye, I felt him in my arms. Trust me. She’s alive. I don’t know how, I don’t know where, but I’m sure she is. Something fishy is going on in Helias. Not that it matters, since all public transport to the island was cut off after DuPont’s exile. We have more urgent matters to attend to. You were saying?”

“Strange old blind gentleman showed up at the precinct earlier. Says he’s the Barreau kid’s grandfather. Wants to reclaim the body or something.”

“Quentin?” Edmond balked. “He was an orphan, which means no documentation of surviving relatives was found anywhere in Cavarice. This better not be one of Lucien’s tricks!”

“Doubt it,” Isaac shrugged. “I mean, the man could just as well be a new arrival. Besides, it’s not like Max or Lucien wanted the body anyway. And do you really want more paperwork to add to that ridiculous stack of reports-”

“Fine!” the second lieutenant huffed. “He can have the bloody corpse for all I care. I just hope he brought his own wheelbarrow. That thing is pretty messy.”

“Right…” Isaac moved for the door, but Edmond stopped him.

“Wait! I want to meet him first. Seems odd. If this man is really a new arrival, what the hell does he know about burial rites in Viktorium? They’re all told that people don’t die here. This is ‘the grand and perfect afterlife’. We don’t even have so much as a morgue or cemetery.”

“Oh please, you know how fast news travels, what with the Free Press doing all their damn exposés. I’m not sure how La Cour hopes to do any damage control after last night. Pretty soon, there may not be much of Cavarice left to defend.”

“Good, I can’t wait to retire and go to Heaven.”

“And I can’t wait for my shift to be over,” Isaac smirked. “Got my own bit of Heaven to catch.”

“Gross,” Edmond rolled his eyes at the boy. He often forgot that Isaac was a homosexual. Not that it mattered one bit to him, though he did fear for the safety of his colleague; such behavior was overlooked among the lower classes of society, but for the Dispatchers, it was an offense punishable by expulsion from the force and significant jail time.

As the two made their way down a corridor that led to the main lobby, the young lieutenant considered the implications of releasing any corpses. They had rarely done so before, and only in certain special cases. Being that no morgue or cemetery existed in the capital city—they had to maintain an aura of perfection, after all—a small freezer had been built at each precinct site for storage. They were required to keep the bodies for a period of one week. Proper protocol dictated that any claimants were to sign nondisclosure agreements, after which a squad of Dispatchers would escort them to the desert outside city walls and allow them to hold a brief burial ceremony at what was essentially a small pit. Once the grieving parties said their goodbyes, the squad would power up their phase units and incinerate the remains, and that was that.

But claimants in general made Edmond nervous. Newcomers tended to be testy. Not that they could legally cause damage, being that the first release form they signed was a similar NDA stating that they could not speak of the second form’s contents outside precinct walls. No one would believe them, in any case. No public transport came in or out of the west gate anymore, and no registered civilians could cross into the desert without special clearance or Dispatcher escort. Still, the events of the previous night had shaken the entire force to their core, and it seemed odd that on the very next day, a claimant had appeared to take the body of the one Cavarice civilian killed in the attack. Not only that, but the one who, Edmond knew, had ties to both the Barreau boys and the Outlanders. He did not like it at all. In fact, he prayed it was one of Lucien’s tricks. At least then, he could shut it down quickly. As they entered the lobby, however, it seemed anything but.

A blind elderly man with a kind face was waiting patiently on a bench to the side, twisting his cane. Edmond approached him with skepticism while Isaac took a seat next to him and began to verbally explain the forms. He had no choice, of course. They did not have Braille copies at the precinct. Convenient, the lieutenant thought. Everything about this stinks. And all the while, the man nodded, even as he turned his head in Edmond’s direction and smiled.

“May I ask what you want with the body, Mister…?”

“Ah, Vaugrenard!” the man exclaimed, extending a hand. “Fernand Vaugrenard, pleased to meet you.”

“I am Second Lieutenant Edmond Fache,” the boy breathed, reluctantly shaking his hand.

“Edmond, really?” Isaac protested.

“Oh no, that’s quite all right my dear boy,” Fernand chuckled. “You have protocols, I understand. I realize this must seem rather odd, doesn’t it. Well, fact of the matter is, I just arrived here in Cavarice about two days ago. The young woman down at Immigration Affairs said my name sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t find any documentation. I was being escorted back to my assigned flat last night on the metro train when I overheard the news about the west gate. This morning, my nurse was reading me the obituaries in the Viktorium Free Press, and Quentin came up. I had hoped to reunite with him here, but fate, it appears, is not so kind. He was my grandson.”

“I’m so very sorry,” Edmond sighed, taking a seat next to him. “And I can assure you, those responsible for the attack on the wall will be met with swift justice.”

“It’s good to know you boys are doing your job, despite the circumstances. I cannot imagine it’s easy.”

“I take it you weren’t shocked when you discovered people die, even in the afterlife?”

“Edmond!” Isaac scolded again, but the boy put a finger to his lips and shook his head.

“I may not look it now, but I’ve seen quite a lot in my lifetime,” the man smiled. “Nothing people do to one another shocks me anymore. Besides, before my murder in Paris, I was a complete cripple, wheelchair bound for life. And here I am now, fit as a fiddle for the most part. Who am I to argue with what choices the Good Lord makes?”

“Right,” Edmond sighed. For god’s sake, stop getting so worked up over a bloody corpse. “You understand what you’ll be agreeing to once you sign the release forms? Following a private ceremony, all bodies must be cremated, personally, by us. No questions, no complaints. Or else no body. Also, our conversation regarding this does not leave the precinct.”

“Understood,” the man nodded.

“Sign away,” the boy patted his shoulder and stood.

“I do have but one small request,” Fernand said. “The body…might I be permitted a few moments alone with him? He was my only grandchild. I’d like to properly say goodbye.”

“Of course.”

Once the man signed the release forms, the boys escorted the old man down to the cellar and unlocked the walk-in freezer. Edmond removed his beige trench coat and draped it over the man’s shoulders to keep him warm while inside. A blast of cold air greeted them as Isaac pulled open the door. The bodies of the slain Outlanders—or at least the parts that were left of them—had been stacked crudely in the corners in black trash bags. Those of the Dispatchers, several of which had already been claimed, were placed in alcove beds built into the sides of the walls. Quentin’s nude body lay on a table in the center, his head draped in a black cloth. Isaac shivered and leaned against the door frame. Neither he nor Edmond took their eyes off the old man for a second.

“What do you think he’s doing?”

“I don’t know.” The second lieutenant watched with curiosity as Fernand removed a small vial from his coat pocket and proceeded to anoint the body of his grandson in some kind of white oil, even removing the face cloth which covered the ghastly wound where the child’s skull had been torn open by phase unit fire.

“I think I’m going to be sick!” Isaac wretched, ducking around the corner to vomit. Edmond rolled his eyes. How any of the Dispatchers had developed such weak stomachs, he would never know. Then again, he’d seen plenty of death in his lifetime.

“All finished?” he called. “I don’t mean to rush, but we’ve got quite a busy schedule ahead of us today.”

“No worries,” the man cleared his throat and stuffed the empty vial away in his pocket.

“Isaac, you ready?”

“Yes, just a moment,” the boy gagged.

“Forget it, I’ll take care of it.”

Edmond plodded into the freezer and gently removed his trench coat from Fernand’s shoulders, wrapping it around Quentin’s body. He made sure to tie the face cloth over the head before lifting the dead child off the table to hoist him over his shoulder and took the old man’s hand to guide him out. Once the door was locked, Isaac appeared from around the corner to help him carry the boy up the steps. Another squad of Dispatchers aided them the rest of the way.

Every protocol was then followed, right up to the incineration. Overall, there turned out to be nothing strange about it. The old man thanked them for their help back at the precinct and went on his merry way. But Edmond still couldn’t help the sinking feeling in his gut that something was terribly wrong.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 16

It had rained late the previous night, leaving a humid mist in the air that reached from the western districts to as far up as the Metropolies. In some ways, Severo preferred the raging sandstorms of the desert villa over the fog. There was a sense of calm in isolation, and the sand banks, while not easily navigable, did not harbor any potential enemies. Now that the Outlanders had made their triumphant return to the city, there were far fewer places to hide. One’s business could be exposed at any moment for all to see. To that end, discretion in Cavarice was a bit of a lost art. At least the Barreau District was not heavily patrolled by Dispatchers.

To that end, the young knight had taken the liberty of setting up a meeting with Bishop Archibald of the local Catholic Diocese on his outing the previous day. The Church had once played a rather prominent role in the rehoming of all orphans who arrived in Cavarice prior to 1915, so if any records of Igor existed from that time, perhaps it would help shed some light on his current predicament. Of course, there was also the matter of returning to Helias to attend to, though that would have to wait. The sooner he uncovered the truth about the troubled leader of the Outlanders, the sooner he could return home with dignity and resume his training in the Seven Trials.

The courtyard of St. Benedict’s Orthodox Sanctuary stood overgrown with weeds and an array of thorny rose bushes that protruded over the iron fence of the walkway like prostrate skeletons. The sidewalk was cracked in various places, the stone walls of the church quickly surrendering to reclamation by a layer of thick vines. With all the miracles in Christendom, perhaps the biggest was that this particular building had managed to remain open all these years. Severo ascended the front steps to a large set of oak double doors and rang the brass bell on the side as instructed. Within seconds, the heavy wooden door unlatched and swung inward. Bishop Archibald’s smiling face greeted him.

“Ah, Severo, good to see you,” the aging man said.

“Thank you.”

“Please, do come inside.”

The knight hesitated and gazed back at the path behind him. He sensed a strange sense of power in this place, unkempt as it was, which railed against his Dalishkova faith. It was odd he had not noticed it before in his travels. Without his prayer amulet—which served as a tool both to protect him, as well as influence belief in others—these energies appeared much more detectable now. So, it seems we’ve been blinded…interesting…

“Are you ready?” the bishop said.

“Yes. Forgive me.”

“As they say, it is not the path which lies behind, but that which leads forward that brings one out of the dark.”

“Of course.” Severo smiled and stepped through the door into a massive foyer that afforded a view of the sanctuary. On the archway above was carved an inscription in Latin: ‘Victoriam In Christo, Solatium In Matrem’—Victory In Christ, Solace In The Mother. The strain of Catholicism that continued in Viktorium was an odd departure from that which was practiced on the Earth plane, mainly because most of its followers viewed this dimension as a sort of Purgatory from which to escape. They often referred to it by name.

The symbols used were much the same, though most of their crosses were designed as broken crucifixes with obtuse angles and a ray of light emanating from the top, while lacking the quintessential figure of the suffering Christ. The reasoning behind this was supposedly because they wanted to encourage their followers to imagine a world without Christ and thus frighten them away from a darker path, though not all churches agreed with the change, favoring a more traditional approach. In recent days however, the second most common image was that of Mary clutching the bruised and battered body of Jesus, signifying a sort of hope for the downtrodden. But no matter the symbology, it was all the same to Severo. Belief, he’d been taught, was the most important aspect. And today, the young knight believed he would find something.

He followed Archibald up to the front of the dim sanctuary, gazing above at the iron chandeliers constructed in a gothic revivalist fashion. Some of them creaked to and fro from their chains, creating an eerie atmosphere as their candles cast shadows on the painted images of saints portrayed on the ceiling above. As they neared the altar, a few uneven portions of carpet drew his attention downward. Between the worn holes in the ornate fabric, he could make out the face of an occasional demon staring up at him. It seemed the floor had been painted at one point to resemble the fires of Hell. Perhaps enough followers had disagreed with it for the church leaders to cover it up.

“Creepy,” Severo muttered.

“I’m sorry? Oh…of course.” The bishop looked back and cringed in acknowledgment, but kept walking. “That floor has always been a subject of contention, I’m afraid. It was meant to better illustrate where this sanctuary stands…to serve as a reminder that this is Purgatory. Above us is Heaven, below us, the pits of Hell. Needless to say, most of our congregation did not take it well, so we covered it until such time it can be repainted. Sadly, our donations in recent days have been rather scant.”

“I would imagine so,” the knight replied. “The Barreau District has fallen on hard times.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Over two hundred people once populated our pews here. Now, fewer than fifty remain, and of those, only about twenty are regular attendees. Of course, closing our doors is never an option. Too many souls left to save.”

“Of course.”

Archibald led him over to a corner office and unlocked the door with a skeleton key. The scent of rich mahogany wafted out from the room as he swung it open and turned on the lights. It was a marked improvement from the dim atmosphere of the sanctuary, brighter and far more inviting. Hanging plants had been arranged near the windows, lending the room a touch of green that was amplified by the stained glass windows.

“I like to keep my office fresh. The rest of this place reminds me of a haunted house!” the old man chuckled. “But the designs were not my choice, you understand. I simply go where I’m called.”

“As do we all.”

“Yes, so,” the man took a seat behind his desk. “What is it that I can do for you today?”

“I’m looking for any information you might have on young boys who were rehomed in Cavarice prior to 1915. It’s my understanding that the Catholic Diocese up to that point worked closely with orphanages to foster transfers and adoptions of children who had arrived here without their parents.”

“Ah, yes,” the man nodded. He rose from his chair and stepped over to a file cabinet in the corner, kneeling down at the bottom drawer. “We should still have some information here in our archives, though much of it was sent to the old courthouse for processing back before it was closed. Do you have a name in particular that you’re searching for?”

“Igor,” Severo breathed. A twinge of anxiety always seemed to hit him every time he had to say that name. Even as a Dalishkova Knight, he could not deny that the boy struck a certain amount of fear in him. And though the scrappy child was blocks away holed up at the safe house, he still felt as though he were being watched by a wolf in the shadows. A wolf he could conquer, and yet a wolf all the same, one that both stalked and eluded him at once.

“And the surname?” the bishop inquired. “We’ve got several boys on file.”

“He doesn’t have a surname that I know of, but he’d be about twelve or thirteen years old.”

“That narrows it down to two. One went to Barreau Orphanage, the other was sent to Rothreau in the northern districts because Barreau was too full at the time. Although it does seem rather strange,” Archibald stood up. He put on his glasses to gaze from one page in the folder to the next, shaking his head. “Their arrival dates were identical, as are their filed dates of birth-”

“Let me see,” Severo said, snatching the folder out of the man’s frail hands and read the second boy’s file aloud. “Born August 23rd, 1902, arrived in Cavarice approximately April 3rd, 1914. No room at Barreau, suggest move to Rothreau by April 14th as several children are being adopted.” He looked back to the first. “Igor has been successfully transferred to Barreau…”

“Perhaps it was misfiled?”

“I don’t think so…this has got to be a cover of some sort. Yes…here it is,” Severo breathed, flipping over the page. “He had to have stayed somewhere else in the interim waiting period before being transferred to Rothreau, and since there was no room at Barreau, they couldn’t have kept him there…oh no!” the boy gasped.

“What is it?”

“The shelter he stayed at…do you mind if I take this?”

“I don’t see why not, it’s not as if many people come looking for old-”

“Thank you!” Severo cut him off and rushed out of the office.

“Wait, where are you going?” Archibald called.

But the young Dalishkova Knight was already halfway through the sanctuary. Why the hell didn’t I think of that before? It was all beginning to make perfect sense now as his earliest childhood memories came to him in fragmented pieces. Ever since he’d rid himself of the prayer amulet during the events of the previous night, the flashbacks were occurring with greater frequency. For years, he had wondered why his father fought so hard to protect him against the Dalishkova, why he hated them so. Severo’s mother was a High Priestess, which he knew had led to some conflict between them. Not like he ever got much of a chance to talk to her.

After his father’s return to Cavarice on that fateful day, he’d been quickly shuffled away into the depths of the temple and given a prayer amulet. For several days, he was provided no food—only water and a book of prayers. By the time the door to the room where he was held prisoner opened, he emerged as a fully-fledged convert and began his training in the Order of Knights. He placed utmost faith in his peers, as well as his ability to protect and serve according to the holy tenants. And yet the further away from the truth of the Order he got, the more he realized it was just manipulation; a smokescreen which deceived everyone in Helias the same as La Cour had managed to do in Cavarice, so that everyone, no matter where they came from, would all be pitted against one another…for what?

Severo rushed for the set of double doors as the bishop trailed behind him. With a single breath, the boy exhaled all the emotion which had bottled up in his chest and concentrated on his obstacle. The doors immediately flung open and smashed against the inside walls of the foyer, sending rippling cracks that extended up to the ceiling. Archibald stopped dead in his tracks and backed away in fear. The knight did not bother to check on him. After all, as the man had said, it was never about the path he would leave behind, but that which led forward that would lead him out of the darkness. It was time to pay a visit to an old Dalishkova property called ‘The Shelter of Motherly Light’.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 15

The underground chambers of the Dalishkova temple in Helias were dark and cold as death. Hewn from limestone and dolomite rock that had formed a cave system centuries ago, the early followers of the Salt God had built their first temple of refuge here. In more recent years, it served as a training ground for the initiation of Knights. And while most initiates were given a map of the area for mock combat exercises, other chambers were either off limits or not listed. The Resurrection Pool was one such chamber. Sealed off since the First Revival movement over two millennia ago, it had recently come back into use by the rogue sect of Dalishkova known as the Cult of Archaides.

Blind Ricard knelt by the pool, swaying his hand to and fro through the white organic matter his trusted helpers had poured from an assortment of ceramic jugs earlier that morning. Still a bit shallow and not quite lukewarm enough for his preference, though it would certainly do. When frigid, the substance created a chemical reaction with limestone, causing a heating effect that took an entire day to dissipate to proper levels for the task to which he was entrusted. Known to authorities as The Sculptor, Ricard had been broken out of his solitary prison on Alabaster Bay and hired by Marco Corcini for his ability to resurrect the dead across frequencies. With the rise of Archaides, it seemed that he, too, was given a second lease on life.

But Ricard was old, eighty years by Earth standards, and he knew his time would come soon enough. The order he descended from was all but wiped out during the purity purge of the Second Revival, and their secrets had gone with them. He was the last of his kind, blinded by intention once it was discovered that he possessed the gift of visualization as a child. It had been fifty years since he’d knelt at this very pool. To feel the healing power of the substance cascading through his arthritic hands again was nothing short of a miracle, and not one he took for granted—he’d been lucky enough to be imprisoned before the law required the hands of all remaining Sculptors to be broken or amputated. Still, he hated being out of practice for so long. This would take some work.

“Has it all come back to you?” a deep voice echoed from the chamber entrance. Marco.

“The voices of the dead do not speak with much clarity, I’m afraid,” Ricard replied. “But I can hear them beginning to whisper from the cracks of time in which they dwell,” he shivered. “Yes…the stream is getting louder as the flesh cools. So many souls, crying out for release.” His heart began to pound with an excitement he’d not felt in decades as the liquid swelled at his touch.

“I imagine this must be quite a treat for you.”

“Indeed. If I were to be granted a dying wish, this would have been it. I never thought I would live to see the rise of so similar a power again on this island. But knowing that I may serve you is quite enough of an honor.”

“And you know the one whom I seek.”

Ricard hesitated. “It will come with some difficulty, but I believe it can be done, as with all things in time. It is no fair irony that those who have been departed for much longer hold a more solid place on their respective frequency. Younger souls are difficult, their nature more erratic, prone to scattering. But one way or another, people find themselves.”

“Enverniam is not a difficult place to reach.”

“For a trained Dalishkova Knight speaking to other departed Dalishkova, of course not,” Ricard explained. “Making contact is fairly easy, provided you know what you are doing. Bringing a non-anointed soul back, however…that is another matter entirely.”

Another pair of footsteps entered the chamber from the entrance, lighter than those of Corcini. Ricard drew his blind gaze away from the pool. From the presence of warmth in the air, he detected it was a female, dark-skinned and desperate. Ermina. The level of salt excreted from her pores signified she had rushed to arrive here. Her breath, which she attempted to disguise, also gave off an aura of intense worry, perhaps rightly so; Marco did not tolerate tardiness.

“You were supposed to meet me an hour ago,” the man said, his tone cold.

“The subways in Cavarice were backed up, and traffic-”

“No excuses, plan better,” he cut her off. “You said you met with the German girl.”

“I did…what are you doing down here, anyway?”

“None of your concern.”

“Of course…I know it is not my place to question.”

“You gave her the amulet?” Marco ignored her.

“Yes.”

“And yet we’ve detected no incoming reception from it. Why is that?”

Ermina sighed. “I observed her a while before we spoke. In those few minutes, I managed to pick up a variant shift in the electrical pulses coursing through her body, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Humans here generate an energy signature comparable to those on the Earth plane, but…this was different. Stronger. A lot stronger…” she paused.

“Go on.”

“As if it could power several city blocks alone. She could easily have destroyed the amulet the moment it touched her palm.”

“And knowing this, you still allowed her to take it.”

“It was just a theory-”

“And you returned to Helias. Had you informed me of this prior, I would have kept you in Cavarice for reconnaissance. She’s the only one who can lead us to Tesla.”

“Not the only—ack!” The woman struggled as Marco began to choke her. “Please…”

“I do not intend to move on Constance yet. This is sensitive information for which I will not tolerate carelessness. You are well aware of the protocol we all must follow. Helias will not fall to the dogs again!” he spat, turning to Ricard. “Are you picking up anything yet? The life waning from her pathetic body, perhaps? After all, we can always sculpt her a new one!”

Ricard sighed. “All due respect sir, I’m beginning to lose focus.” It wasn’t true, of course. Ermina was not even half dead, and Marco had only done this to get a rise out of the man. It was his way of telling him to work faster. But the aging sculptor was not about to reveal the true extent of his perceptive powers in case this regime, too, were to one day meet its demise. Marco huffed and let go of the woman, who coughed and slumped to the floor gasping for breath. Ricard turned his attention back to the pool, where the organic matter now formed more favorable clumps between his fingers. So much more to work with, he smiled.

“You will return to Cavarice at once and await my instructions,” Corcini spoke to the woman.

“Yes sir.” Ermina continued coughing as she exited the chamber, her footsteps fading up the stone stairwell and back to the surface. There, she would emerge from a secret passageway that ended several blocks east beneath the ruins of an ancient guard tower. Ricard’s ancestors were once stationed there. And while this seemed a random thought at first, the old man knew everything was connected throughout the realms to serve a purpose. If he began by calling forth the most ancient souls first, it was inevitable that they would lead him to the more recently departed.

“Forgive me for that display of cruelty,” Marco said. “I imagine you’ve suffered enough in your lifetime.”

“Silence please, if you may,” Ricard replied. “A face is forming.”

The old man dipped both hands into the pool now, carefully tracing an assortment of shapes as they came into focus in his mind’s eye. If he did not take his time, it was possible to ruin the sculpture and lose the more important details. The organic matter would form itself into a body without a face. Then, that soulless entity would escape and wreak havoc across the frequencies. Lord knew the Dalishkova didn’t need another Flesh War on their hands.

The molding was a struggle to keep up with for a man of Ricard’s age. The images often passed through his mind much quicker than his frail hands could keep up with, though he quietly recited the Twelve Pillars, which allowed him to stay focused. The entire history of Helias came rushing through his fingertips and coursed through his veins now—the earliest Greek settlers who’d gotten lost at sea and stumbled upon the isle after kidnapping the Oracle Helene, their defeat of the Reapers with her help, the founding of the Dalishkova religion under her name and the gracious Salt God who had saved them. The First Revival, in which older Greek gods came back into favor among the youth, prompting a major reformation of the Dalishkova religion, and then the Second, which purged such ideas. The return of the Reapers and subsequent arrival of Charles DuPont, who proved a nuisance until he made a deal to rid Viktorium of the creatures in exchange for his permission to remain. The building of the Cavarice wall, his departure, and then the recent attacks…all told through the eyes of the false flesh. You fool.

“Ah, there you are,” the man smiled. “Yes…you’ve been through quite a bit of pain, haven’t you, my boy? So much pain and anger. But not to worry,” he whispered, stroking the outline of a child’s face that had formed in his tender hands. “You will return soon enough from Enverniam and have a new home here in Helias. We will take great care of you…Quentin Vaugrenard.”

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