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 14

Max and Lucien stood as the young men in black surrounded them and prepared to escort them out of the Morcourt building. The young Barreau elder did his best to keep pace with the mayor and Constance in case they exchanged any further words. What he’d heard thus far was troubling. He’d known for some time that Mayor Nicolas was not as in control as he seemed, but he had no idea things were this bad. Even if he had managed to secure funds from the wealthiest families in Cavarice at his fundraiser the previous night, there was little doubt Constance Renou would discover the paper trail and cut him off. The man was quite literally a slave to her whims, and with that kind of power, there was no telling what would happen to their way of life in the city, or if there were some manner of escaping it.

The groups parted ways at the top of the stairwell, where the Dispatchers guided them to the right and down a corridor which led to the back exit, though Max was able to catch a bit of their conversation before the turn.

“We’ll tell them we have several suspects in custody,” Constance said quietly. “That should give it time to blow over while General Rodin investigates further. Don’t make any ridiculous comments and for god’s sake, don’t respond to any questions you don’t have answers to. Calmly reassert that the situation is under control. That should put their fears to rest. Not like you’re particularly good at that. Lucky for you, I’m still here to save face.”

The power flickered as they made their way past an assortment of offices to the top of the back stairwell. For a moment, Max felt a strange sense of vertigo. He looked over to Lucien, who also seemed to wince momentarily. Not that he cared if the boy was all right; he’d been coming close to wishing a very painful death on his old friend in recent hours, but the fact he felt it too was important. What seemed more odd was that the Dispatchers escorting them did not even flinch at the occurrence. They did not power on their phase units, nor did they pause to check anomaly readings. What sort of Dispatchers are they? Max wondered. Even private squads did that much to ensure the safety of their clients, and he’d never encountered a group who wore black coats instead of the standard-issue beige. Still, he thought it best not to question. They looked a bit more temperamental than others he had seen, and he wasn’t about to do anything to cause concern.

Upon arriving at the back exit, the Dispatchers shoved them through the set of double doors and locked it behind them without saying a word. Lucien looked to Max with a slight smirk on his face, the kind he always had whenever he’d got them through a bit of mischief and survived to tell the tale. The back alley was vacant and dark, save for a single fading light atop the doors.

“What?” Max asked.

“Don’t you see? No cars waiting. He had no plan of escape after all. He would just as well have let the dogs overrun this city, and himself with it. He knows he’s weak. And I know you’ve thought highly of him, Max-”

“Let’s not go there. Not after last night.”

“Point is, if the leader of Cavarice is weak, so are we. You take what you can get from him before he gets crushed.”

“After what we heard at that meeting, it appears I wouldn’t be getting very much. If I were to sign his ridiculous adoption papers, I’d go straight down with him. No thanks.”

“That’s where Constance comes in-”

“Constance!” Max laughed. “She’s the one tying his hands! Are you really that stupid as to stake our futures on the woman who’s played a role in orchestrating our misery? That’s exactly why we can’t work together anymore. We’re clearly on different sides. And I’m not going to stand here and listen…”

The elder stopped mid-sentence as he caught wind of the woman herself beginning to address the crowd of eager reporters around the far side of the building. His eyes went wide as he looked to Lucien, and not a second later, the two boys were dashing through the alleyway back to the main street. A chain-link fence stood in their way, which they scaled with ease and hit the ground running. By the time they reached the front entrance, the crowd had filled the steps until there was no more room, forcing the rest of those who had previously clamored for space out into the street. The two boys took up a position near the back of the throng and listened intently to the woman’s speech as she stood at the podium.

“Yesterday, the west gate of our city’s wall fell under attack by a group of nomadic hostiles known to us as the Outlanders, a street gang which our previous administration had exiled. They managed to breach the wall, followed by a brief firefight with our Dispatchers. As of now, we have several of the culprits in custody and any remaining threat has been eliminated. I’ve been informed that General Rodin is conducting the most thorough investigation possible into these events. Rest assured, we will not stop until we learn who masterminded this vile attack and how it was made possible.

“That said, I personally reviewed the guard schedule for last night, and it seems that our Dispatchers on the wall were ill-equipped to adequately handle the threat, and Mayor La Cour was well aware of this. Two squads were stationed at the gate when there should have been six, plus two commanders to oversee their duties. Several extra squads were forced to abandon their posts in the Metropolies to fend off invaders who, quite frankly, should never have gotten as far as the wall. Furthermore, it’s been brought to my knowledge that District Commander Pontius has been placed on administrative leave pending a formal inquiry of his actions in response to the attack, which I’m told were questionable.

“Of course, the failures of Nicolas La Cour’s leadership at this point could not be made more apparent. Events such as these threaten to divide the very fabric of the fine society we all hold so dear right here in Cavarice. La Cour would have you be afraid, because he himself is afraid. For too long, he has cowered in the face of opposition both political and domestic, and your city has suffered for it. But now more than ever, it is not the time for fear. It is a time for unity and progress! As a businesswoman serving on the city council and as the director of Viktorium-France Transit, I assure you I can see to that. Because I believe in the strength of Cavarice, its enduring prosperity, and most of all, its people. That is why I’m proud to say that in the upcoming elections, I will be campaigning to serve this city as your mayor. Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ve taken up my allotted time. Mayor La Cour will be speaking next to answer any questions you might have,” she said, backing away from the podium with the slyest of smiles. Nicolas, meanwhile, approached behind her looking white as a sheet.

“I don’t believe it,” Max shuddered. His heartbeat was racing as he gazed over the crowd, seeing flash after flash of camera bulbs firing amid the shouting reporters as the mayor struggled to appease them. Between each stuttered response, the man only dug himself deeper, generating a chorus of boos from the audience. Constance had already asserted her presence and, it seemed, solidified herself in the hearts and minds of the Cavarician crowds. Many were begging for her to speak again.

“I know, I can’t bear to watch either,” Lucien sighed. “Inspiring woman, though.” Max rolled his eyes and backed away, heading for the subway station. “Where are you going? Don’t you want to see how this ends?”

“I already know how it ends!” the elder called. “I’m going home. Have fun. Maybe I’ll catch you at Verdevale.”

As Max plodded his way down the steps and descended through the shadows back to the station platform, he couldn’t help but feel as defeated as Mayor La Cour. The smokescreen, he knew, would continue for as long as it had to. Of course there was little doubt the welcome gala would continue as planned. Constance still had her reputation to uphold, if she were to have any hope of winning in the coming elections. And unless a more serious, well-rounded contender emerged into the political sphere by that time, there was also little doubt she would win.

The elder checked his pocket watch. There was still about ten minutes left until the last train arrived. He’d intended to leave with Lucien, but he was not about to finish listening to what little remained of La Cour’s dignity slipping away into the cold abyss of the night—not as if he had much choice. The speakers throughout the subway system blared the main public news channel twenty four hours, seven days a week unless there was an emergency. Max did his best to tune it out, shuffling over to a nearby magazine rack to pick up a newspaper. But before he could extend a hand to pick out that morning’s issue, a calm voice spoke behind him.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Yes?” Max turned around to see a young man, thirty or so, with short disheveled hair and a brown waistcoat, puffing away on a pipe. In his left hand was a notepad, an ink pen in his right. “Oh, bloody hell!”

“Might I buy a moment of your time?”

“No! Bugger off. I’ve got a train to catch. Besides, there’s plenty of action upstairs. Isn’t that what you journalists are here for?”

“I’m not sure if you’re aware of my reputation,” the man smirked, stuffing his notepad away to remove the pipe from his mouth. “But let’s just say that if I were to show my face up there, I would likely be arrested. As it so happens, I’ve also got a train to catch. I was wondering if I might get your story first, since I know an outlaw when I see one. ‘Always bet on the underdog,’ as I say.”

“I’m sorry, who the hell are you?”

“Benoit Laurent,” the man smiled, extending a hand. “Author of the Brief History of Viktorium articles. Rabble rouser, no-good hack journalist, and whatever other name they choose to call me by. I prefer ‘Agent of Truth’ myself, though I’m afraid Andre Casanov is the only one on public radio who gives me such credit. And you are?”

“Max Ferrier,” the elder replied.

“Nice to meet you, Max. What do you say we get out of here?”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 13

“This is much better,” Lucien quipped, gazing around the lobby they had toured just the previous day.

“Yes, well enjoy it while you can,” Pierre said, adjusting his vest and suit jacket. “At the rate things are going, the press will have us all lynched before dawn. This way, please.” He gestured for them to follow and led them up through the main foyer all the way past the pillars, this time to the left. On the previous day, they had taken a right into the main hall, where Mayor La Cour had bored the Barreau boys half to death with his meticulous seating arrangements for the welcome gala. So much had changed since then, and yet it remained the same. But to Max, Morcourt Hall seemed to have taken on a much darker tone in light of recent events. He could feel it permeating the air like the hot desert sun back in the Outlanders’ villa that had forced the sweat from his pores and left his clothes clinging to him like static soon afterward.  It was a feeling of disgust, of something in the air left unresolved, and the shadow of what was yet to follow.

The young elder did his best to stay one step ahead of Lucien on the way to wherever Pierre was leading them so the boy didn’t cross into his peripherals. He hated being reminded of the fact that it was him—not Bernard—who had accompanied him to this meeting. And yet still, perhaps it would afford him the unique opportunity to read his old friend and plot his next move. Lucien had thus far remained one step ahead of Max, and god only knew how far those slender hooks of his extended. The lanky boy sprung up beside him soon enough. Max rolled his eyes but said nothing.

Pierre took a right around the next corner, leading them both up a side stairwell and through another corridor past the Green Room and around the rotunda balcony to a set of double doors on the right lined in gold, art deco-styled trim. He produced a skeleton key from inside his jacket and unlocked one side, gesturing for them both to move through as he opened it. Max and Lucien walked through to find themselves in a rather lavishly decorated office study. Mayor La Cour sat behind a desk at the far end surrounded by six of his cabinet officials. All of them wore grim expressions on their faces, the likes of which belied an even darker tone than the mahogany shades present in their surroundings. None of them acknowledged the two boys, save for La Cour himself, who at least made an effort to feign enthusiasm.

“Ah, gentlemen!” he exclaimed, forcing a smile. “Glad you both could make it. Please, have a seat.”

Lucien shoved his way ahead of Max and plopped down in one of the two remaining vacant chairs in the semicircle, but the young elder moved for the large circular window behind the desk to keep watch over the roaring crowds below. The office was positioned above the main entrance of Morcourt, so one could see everything from up here. None of it looked pretty. As it was, much of the glass had already been clouded by a smattering of rotten vegetables hurled from below that slid down, obstructing a good portion of the view. Mayor LaCour squeaked backward in his rickety chair.

“Maxwell, would you like to sit?”

“I’m fine with standing,” the elder crossed his arms.

“Please,” the man glared at him. A large tomato suddenly splattered against the window in front of Max’s face, and that was all the encouragement he needed.

“Right.”

“Pierre, can we close the curtains, please?!” La Cour huffed, running a hand through his silvery hair.

“Of course sir!” The butler rushed over, pulling the large crimson drapes shut. More vegetables came flying as he did. Max felt his heart skip a beat with every thump against the glass, though in surveying the circle of faces he and Lucien now found themselves a part of, no one else seemed particularly on edge. Even the mayor himself seemed more content to pore over a newspaper than to address the crippling silence taking hold of the room. For several moments, the only sounds one could hear were the old grandfather clock ticking in the far left corner and the din of the angry crowd below. La Cour rustled through his newspaper, though he at last broke the silence after throwing it down on his desk in annoyance. Max glanced over at the headline:

OUTLANDERS ATTACK WEST GATE, INVADE CITY; MULTIPLE CASUALTIES, SEVERAL DEATHS SUSPECTED

“These crowds get their first whiff of blood in the afterlife and suddenly it’s anarchy. But of course we all know this is not the afterlife,” he sighed. “I want to know who leaked this.”

“Probably that hack journalist, what’s-his-name,” Vice Mayor Beatrice Castile thought aloud.

“Benoit Laurent,” grumbled one of the other old councilmen.

“That’s the one,” La Cour nodded. “I’d love to hang his body upside down from the roof!”

“Does it really matter?” Louis, his aging, timid-voiced accountant sighed. “There’s no coming back from this. We’re finished. Might as well start swallowing the cyanide pills.”

“I prefer arson. Easier to hide,” Beatrice added.

“Now stop it, all of you!” the mayor snapped, rising from his chair. “I called you here to help me formulate a plan, not sit around like a bunch of corpses waiting to desiccate! Christ, you all look as if you might croak at any moment, save of course for these two young gentlemen from the Barreau District. What we need right now are answers, because those savages decided to attack the city wall on the week before my welcome gala! You cannot tell me that doesn’t reek of suspicion.”

“All due respect,” Louis shrugged, “but holing yourself up in Morcourt doesn’t exactly bode well for your public appearance, either. The crowds are already screaming for blood, and even if you do choose to address them now, you’ll face assassination. Also, this is not the most secure location and we all know it. There are no underground tunnels or secret passageways leading in or out. Captain Gerard and his teams can only hold back the mob for so long before they break down the bloody doors, and when that happens-”

“Oh just go and kill yourself now if you’re that faithless!” La Cour cut him off. “Don’t you think I’ve already accounted for that?  We’ve got tight security and armored cars waiting out back. I pray we don’t have to use them, but there’s a clear path for the Serreines province should it become necessary. I plan to address the crowds.”

“That’s suicide,” Beatrice muttered.

“And just what are we to tell the new arrivals as everyone starts to riot here, then? Someone’s got to speak to them sooner or later! I’d prefer not to cancel an event with weeks worth of planning. We must encourage ongoing positive morale in the capital city. Besides, General Rodin assured me that investigative reports concerning the attack on the wall are forthcoming.”

“In that case, sir,” his publicist chimed in, “perhaps it is best we postpone the celebrations until a definitive conclusion is reached. They’ll be more apt to trust you.”

“I’m not calling it off!”

“Sir, I didn’t say-”

“What’s the point of postponing? Either our own citizens riot in the streets, or we have a bunch of rats running around causing all manner of mischief because they haven’t a clue what to do with themselves! I want this contained, and quickly. God forbid anyone else dies!”

“Sir, if you’ll allow me to finish,” his publicist sighed. “Might I suggest the possibility of moving the gala to your summer villa at the Verdevale Province Air Field? It’s not too far from the city. There is more space and it’s an open atmosphere, not as congested. People will feel safer, perhaps more welcome there. The trains will arrive on site as well. We could plan for fireworks.”

“What about the market right next door? Security will be more dispersed than I’m comfortable with, especially after the loss of several Dispatcher squads. And that still doesn’t solve the problem of what to tell these goddamn reporters!” La Cour grumbled, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Anyone else want to offer some bright ideas? Max?”

“Sorry, what?” The elder had caught himself zoning out as he rested his chin on his knuckles. Now that all eyes were trained on him with the expectation of an answer, everything went blank. The political climate in the Metropolies was of little concern to him compared with the loss of Quentin the previous night and the survival of his boys. He had his suspicions of course regarding Lucien’s possible role in the attack, but that’s all they were. If he was going to prove his old friend was in fact a traitor, he would need evidence, and that would take time. At least he knew the La Cour family might be on his side, given that the mayor favored him enough to show him adoption papers the previous night—an offer he’d refused, though still struggled with. That’s when he came up with a plan. Stand your ground. Don’t let Lucien know you were thinking twice. “Why are you asking me for answers? That’s what your advisors are for.”

“I thought I might use the two of you as field consultants to gauge public opinion,” the mayor admitted, pacing around his desk. “Both of you have lived here since before I was elected. You remember what Cavarice used to be, what it stands for, and what it should be. When I started my campaign, I built it on the premise of change. A return to the glory days, if you will-”

“First off, cut the shit!” Max snapped. “I can tell you right now that nobody wants to hear it after last night’s attack, least of all me! The people are angry because you’ve lost control. Any idiot could see that. It’s time to stop lamenting the good old days and focus on calming them down before your approval rating sinks any lower. You said reports from General Rodin are coming, yeah?”

“Yes, but-”

The mayor was suddenly cut off by a loud bang from across the room as a squad of Dispatchers in black leather trench coats stormed through the ornate double doors with such force that the top hinge on one of them broke off. Everyone jumped out of their skin while Max and Lucien bolted out of their chairs and stood at the ready, exchanging worried glances. The elder grit his teeth. He hadn’t thought to bring a phase unit, and considering his brief encounter with Antoine the previous night, there was no telling what this squad’s motives were.

But rather than apprehend anyone, the young men in black quickly stepped aside to make way for a pale blonde woman in a green miniskirt and matching business jacket. A small hat with a fishnet veil sat atop her bob of wavy, golden locks. She was beautiful, and yet exuded a presence much like a destructive force of nature. Her large, blue eyes seethed with hurricane fury, her pouty lips twisted in a bright red lipstick snarl that looked like a rose about to explode. And explode she did.

“Would you mind telling me just what the HELL is going on?!” the woman roared, charging up to the desk.

“Constance!” La Cour choked nervously. “Good of you to join us.”

“Not so good for you, I’m afraid!” she spat. “I was gone for a mere two days securing business deals in the Falvarre province and I come home to rioting in the streets! Apparently, I can’t leave you alone for five minutes without holding your hand like a bloody child.”

“Please, if you’ll allow me to-”

“News travels fast, by the way,” she snapped her fingers, prompting one of her Dispatchers to step over and toss a newspaper on the man’s desk with yet another distressing headline from the Falvarre Daily:

TERROR IN CAVARICE; OUTLANDERS RETURN, WEST WALL BREACHED

“As I recall, I’ve told you to have more security stationed at the west gate. This should have been addressed immediately, before you had a crowd of angry people ready to break down your doors!” she huffed. “By the way, what is this riffraff doing here?” She gestured back to Max and Lucien. The young elder’s heart was thudding in his chest at the sheer power of her presence. So this is why La Cour backs out of confrontation.

“I invited them as advisors on public opinion, as they have experience-”

“Ha!” Constance chuckled. “Unless you’re bloody blind, you already know how the public perceives you. Take a long, lovely gander,” she stomped around the back of his desk and flung the crimson curtain wide open again, “at THAT! Ah, the sweet smell of dissension. So many angry citizens, fed up with the stale rhetoric of their tired old leader. As it so happens, the timing could not be more perfect.”

La Cour balked. “What are you talking about?”

“My candidacy for mayor, of course,” she turned back with a grin. “The people are crying out for justice. They need a proper leader to ensure their protection against terrorists both foreign and domestic. And with election season right around the corner, what better time than now to announce my campaign?”

“You wouldn’t dare!” the man bellowed. “Not with your conflicts of interest.”

“Oh, I have my ways, darling,” Constance assured him. “The beauty of it is that it would hardly matter. You’ve managed to create one blunder after another, to the point your approval rating has gone down the shitter. Meanwhile, my stocks continue to rise, and you…well, without my help and your current title, you’re one step away from bankruptcy, aren’t you? Now, if you’re quite done sitting in your office sulking with the rest of these crusty old heaps, we’ve got damage control to address. And not to worry. I’ll be speaking ahead of you. And lest you make any more of a mockery of our administration, my Dispatchers are here to keep things tidy. Any questions?”

“You’re a real bitch,” La Cour muttered.

“Proud of it. Shall we?” Constance hooked her arm around his and gestured to her private squad. “And show our little ‘public advisors’ to the door, will you? They’re stinking up the hall.”

“Of course, ma’am,” the captain answered. “Let’s go, you two.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 10

“Igor!” the group of Outlanders shrieked. Severo was met with a cacophony of frightened voices that echoed off the walls and reverberated around the concrete columns of the safe house. He shook his head in an attempt to reorient his vision. His body ached and his head throbbed. Everything was brighter on this side. Brighter, blurry, and full of color, as if he’d been staring into the sun for too long. Once he came to, he caught sight of Igor sprawled out unconscious on the floor with his nose bleeding.

“My god,” he whispered. “What have I done?”

“It’s him, it’s him!” one of the girls shouted, pointing accusingly at the young knight. “Didn’t you all see? His eyes turned white and Igor fainted. He’s a bloody witch! You will answer for this!” The child charged at him, but Olivier moved to block her path.

“He is not a witch!” the boy snapped. “If anything, he saved Igor when I almost took his life the other night at the villa. And witches, really? In Viktorium? You need to stop reading those ridiculous serials.” He snatched a newspaper she was clutching in her hand and tossed it on the floor. “He’s Dalishkova. Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Severo swallowed. This was bad. Very bad.

“You’re what?!” Lucien exclaimed. “So that’s why you’ve been sitting on the floor meditating all this time. I swear to god, you little shit!” he stormed over, grabbing the knight by his lapels, “if you’ve done ANYTHING-”

“Get off of me, Lucien!” Severo spat through clenched teeth. “I have no quarrel with you.”

“Oh, but you don’t understand. Your kind were kicked out of Cavarice for a reason, and if I have to deal with an uprising on my hands once I reclaim my rightful destiny, I’ll have your head planted on a spire so high, the whole of Helias will see it!”

“Fine! If and when you reclaim your rightful throne, I will bow my head and you can sever it from my body, but until then, I need Igor alive just as you do! Now shut up and bring him to me.”

Lucien let go and backed away in fury. Severo felt his heart thud in his chest much faster than it ever had. What had happened to the leader of the Outlanders? His mind was still adjusting from the shock of returning to such a volatile environment. None of it made any sense. If where he’d been was a physical manifestation of Igor’s mind, then how had the Dalishkova managed to tap in? Even more curious…who was the boy who had shot arrows at him just before he left? But now was not the time to dwell on such things. He had to assess Igor to be sure he was all right.

Olivier grabbed the boy’s legs while Lucien took hold of his shoulders, and the two placed the young gang leader on the floor in front of Severo. The knight took a deep breath and sighed. Without his prayer amulet, he had no idea if there was even a point to reciting what prayers he knew. In addition, he could not recall all of them. His prayer book, too, he had left with Emilie back in the caves with the Outlanders that were loyal to her. He hoped just as well that she was surviving on her own, and that the boys under her were earning their keep.

“Right,” the boy sighed again. He placed his hands on either side of Igor’s head and closed his eyes to begin the incantation. His focus was off on the first attempt, and he forgot at least an entire phrase. Steady, he told himself. He tried again. Yet before he could speak a word, the young leader’s eyes fluttered open and he arched his back to sit up, coughing and gagging for air. He regained his composure several moments later as Severo continued to pray over him. The rest of the Outlanders gathered anxiously around, eager to make certain their leader was all right. Lucien gave the boy a few pats on the back to help clear his chest. Igor spat a thick mixture of blood and mucus across the dusty wooden floor, then shuffled to his feet. At last, the familiar personality they all loved to hate had returned.

“The fuck are you chickens all staring at?!” he snapped.

“You fainted,” Lucien replied. “Are you quite sure you’re all right? Or do I have to have someone else carry out your-”

“Want to lose your cock?!” Igor rasped, yanking him by the neck of his shirt. “You don’t need that to lead, chicken. I’m living proof, and I certainly don’t need mine to cut your dirty throat or anyone else’s. But if you fancy having all the meat sliced from that tender little bone of yours,” the boy grinned, whipping out his knife and poking a hole in the thigh of Lucien’s trousers. The elder yelped and tried to pull away, but Igor quickly positioned a foot behind his heel and shoved him to the floor. “That’s what I thought. Now bugger off.”

As the scrappy boy turned and paced across the room to take refuge and further collect himself, Severo rose to feet. Now was the perfect opportunity to take his leave and deliver Max’s letter to the post office uptown. If anything, the situation he’d been presented with had just grown far more urgent. Between Igor’s fainting spell and the visit he had received from the Dalishkova, not to mention Lucien discovering his true identity, the young knight’s safety would soon be in jeopardy. Slipping quietly past the throng of Outlanders, Severo made way for the stairwell.

“And just where do you think you’re sneaking off to?” Igor asked.

“Short stroll,” the knight breathed. “I need some fresh air.”

“Don’t wander too far.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 8

Even in the western districts, the afternoon noise of the city traveled like a hurricane. Sounds from far off were magnified tenfold if one were to close their eyes. Because of this unpleasant ambience, Severo found himself struggling to attain the same depth of meditation which had seemed so easy back in the quiet underground of the desert villa. To make matters worse, Lucien had arrived about twenty minutes prior to meet with Igor and had not stopped pacing or fiddling with his pocket watch ever since. Sure, timed meditation worked well for some, but between the ticking of the hands and the clicking of the clasp and the elder’s constant sighs of “where the hell is he”, it was all but impossible to concentrate—so much so that the knight had seriously considered raising his voice. But Lucien was not his objective.

Severo had been sitting for over an hour against the far wall of the old textile factory which served as the Outlanders’ safe house. For a moment, he swore he’d heard a voice from far off call out to him by name, but his concentration was again broken by the raucous roar of elephants stomping their way up to the third floor. He opened his eyes and sighed. At last, Igor had returned from his morning run, and by the sound of it, their numbers had grown. It was as the Outlander promised.

“Told you I’d bring fresh meat for the slaughter!” the leader chuckled as he reached the top of the stairs. “By the way, what did you think of our brilliant attack on the wall?”

“Brilliant?!” Lucien spat, seizing the boy and hurling him against a concrete column. “How about foolish? I told you to wait for my signal! MINE! And killing Quentin was never a part of our deal!”

“Careful, chicken. I did all the dirty work like always, and it’s not my fault you turned him weak. Besides, I don’t like middlemen anymore. Too much of a risk. Betrayal and all that.”

Lucien grabbed him by the throat. “Speaking of betrayal, what’s this I hear that you have other benefactors and trust Max over me? Perhaps I should keep a better eye on my chosen allies. Because remember Igor, you have no claim whatsoever to the leadership of Cavarice. You and your tired ilk would be nothing without me! You are here because I require you to be. Once I am mayor, I could have you exiled all over again.”

“DO IT!” Igor seethed. “I would love to see you try! By the time you’re mayor, it will be too late. You can have your name and your high castle all you want, but remember who rules the streets. Don’t forget, I was born here. I’ve bled and I’ve murdered here!” he barked, shoving Lucien off of him. “I’ve made all the sacrifices!” The orphanage elder backed away, but stopped cold when he realized five Outlanders stood behind him with knives drawn, ready to strike. “I’ve dragged corpses through these alleys and eaten their flesh on the rooftops,” the boy narrowed his eyes. “This rooftop, in fact,” he nodded upward. “Nurse Mary Angeline said she could never stomach my presence in the orphanage again. I cut out her guts so she wouldn’t have to. Stomached her just fine.” His subordinates chuckled.

“Quentin said you weren’t cannibals,” Lucien swallowed. Severo could hear his heart pounding from across the room.

“He’d say anything to get you to trust him,” the leader sneered. “If you knew him like we did, you would never have let him set foot in your orphanage. That was your first mistake.”

The elder was shaking in his boots now, clearly never having endured the experience of being reduced to pure slush by a child almost half his size. But as Severo watched their exchange from across the room, he knew not to interfere. Igor reasserting his power whenever he felt backed into a corner was commonplace, and the knight had learned there were certain formations or signs the Outlanders made if the attack was about to be genuine. Since their knives were turned upward rather than out, they did not intend to strike. Indeed, doing so now would be foolhardy; Lucien and Igor both needed each other as a means to an end. Still, it signified a threat that the young leader of the Outlanders was more than prepared to carry out. He would eat Lucien if the boy got in his way, there was no doubt about that.

“W-what have you done?” Lucien quivered. “And where are the Dispatcher parts I asked for…” The five children surrounding him—three boys and two girls—edged closer. The lanky boy instinctively tucked his arms in, cradling himself as he shook ever harder. “Stop it, stay back!” he clenched his teeth. Meanwhile, Igor continued to descend upon him like an alpha wolf ready for the kill.

“What’s that? Aww, scared little chicken!” the boy smiled. “Seems you’ve got yourself an uprising, mate. Who’s going to protect you now?”

“I’ve got other benefactors as well,” Lucien muttered through clenched teeth.

“Really?” Igor said, grabbing hold of his wrist and jerking him forward. “How much of your body do you think will be left before they get here? I already slit someone’s throat this morning. Now I’m in the mood to peel back a few layers of skin-”

“STOP!”

Ignoring his plea, the leader of the Outlanders removed the dagger from his makeshift twine belt and set it down over the boy’s arm. Frantic tears ran down Lucien’s face now as he struggled to retain his composure, glancing about the room for any possible way out. But the Outlanders had fully encircled him. There was nowhere to run.

“Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear, chicken,” Igor said. “I don’t give a wretched fuck about your name. I’m starving.” With that, he made a quick slit across the underside of the elder’s arm, drawing a thin line of blood. Lucien grit his teeth from the pain and attempted to pull away, but Igor lunged forward to lick the wound clean before he could. A wide grin spread across the Outlander’s face.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” the lanky boy protested, only to have knives pointed at his throat.

“You don’t eat until we eat!” Igor coughed. “Until then, you don’t make the demands. When a boy has nothing, he has nothing to lose. Sure, Max owes me. I could have gotten those Dispatcher parts from him easy, but then you’d have a shot at betraying me.” The leader coughed twice more, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “I don’t…take losses I can’t replace,” he sniffled. His breathing began to grow erratic between words, as if he’d fall into a fit at any moment. “Mordechai made that mistake. I didn’t kill him for you-” The leader gagged suddenly. “Too much salt in your blood, chicken!” Igor frowned and spat on the floor. “And something else I don’t like. A familiar taste, like a preserved corpse…” The child’s expression hardened with a quiet rage that built inside him like the fire of a long forgotten memory, and in that moment, Severo closed his eyes to attempt another impossible dive into Igor’s twisted consciousness.

The ambient noise of the city peeled back in on itself as a cold front swept upward from the Sea of Helene through the crumbling western districts, bringing with it a salty aroma. Home, the Dalishkova Knight felt his heart sigh, arousing long forgotten memories of his own. These were quickly silenced as he continued on, navigating through the shadows as the white wolf navigates the skeletal forests of winter. There in the cold, dark, unforgiving depths of the young child’s mind, he attempted to find a clearing…

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 7

“Jesus Christ Pontius, what the hell happened out there?” the general asked. He jammed the cork back in once he’d filled his glass to the brim, taking a rather liberal sip.

“Nice Biblical irony there,” Pontius smirked. “But you already heard it-”

“The full version of events. The one you didn’t fabricate in front of the boys just now, because clearly they know, and certainly I do, that you’re a stinking drunk. You don’t fool me, Commander. I’m sure their testimony would corroborate that. Now what the devil happened?”

“Last I recall looking at the clock on my desk, it was ten minutes to eight,” Pontius explained. “All was quiet on the wall. Nice breeze. I stepped out of my office…heh…bottle in my hand. Tripped and stumbled, knocking out a street lantern. Third shift boys finished their patrol for the night. I went back inside.”

“And?”

“Pascal had to wake me up.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!”

“Can I really help it if it’s a boring job?”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass how boring it is! Do you have any idea why we called you back as District Commander in the first place?! It’s so these sorry young children can learn some goddamn respect for their jobs from a seasoned war veteran like yourself, who in my opinion is the best man to ever have donned the Dispatcher’s uniform!”

“Spare me the showers of praise,” Pontius said, swiping the bottle of brandy off the man’s desk to refill a metal flask he’d dug out of his coat pocket. “We all know that title belongs to your friend, Marco Corcini.” Rodin took back the bottle and smacked the flask out of his hand.

“How dare you! After all the strings I’ve pulled for you over the years to get you to the position you are now? I should think a man of your stature would be more appreciative!”

“I never asked for it. Besides, killing off orphaned children isn’t my idea of what constitutes a promotion.”

“Come now, you know how this city works, Pontius,” the general said. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the front edge of his desk. “The Dispatchers must keep the capital safe from not only the unseen forces which plague our world, but also those who travel by night slitting the throats of the innocent upper classes of our fine society. Our very principles are at stake-”

“Principles?” the commander chuckled, sinking back into one of the two leather chairs in front of his desk. “This city has had none ever since DuPont’s exile, and by the way, if murder is on your list of principles, I could just as well question your ability to serve as General.”

Rodin smirked. “So those three deaths which occurred under your watch last night don’t count as murder-”

“Three?” Pontius breathed. The flashes of memory were beginning to stabilize now, and every time a split second of clarity came, the spike of pain hammered through his skull even harder. Then he remembered. “It’s my understanding that at least one of those was in the pursuit of proper protocol…how did you know about the others?”

“According to Antoine and Gabriel, you kept muttering to the hospital staff about erasing the face of a young boy, then destroying the heart of another. They’d have thought you crazy, had they not discovered two bodies. One with his face blasted off, the other through the heart two blocks over shortly from where you fell. Captain Georges was no doubt a major loss for your department, but as for the two you murdered in cold blood, one of whom I understand was a resident of Barreau Orphanage…we shall need an alibi for you, my friend.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Pontius was incredulous. “I’m an adult. I’ll take responsibility for my own blunders.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. This is bigger than either of us and you know it. The reputation of the entire Dispatchers force is at stake, and I won’t have our most valuable veteran disgracing us all on the eve of the mayor’s welcome gala.”

“Have to say I’m surprised at you, General,” the commander said, grabbing a cigar from the open box on Rodin’s desk. “They’d love your brand of corrupt, wrinkled ass in Parliament.”

“Well somebody’s got to look out for you. So here’s how this is going to go.” The man lit a match and leaned forward to light his cigar. “Our official story will dictate that Lieutenant Mikael Lorraine was killed in the course of duty as he bravely fought off the invading Outlanders. I’ll see to it that the rest of his squad receives immediate promotions and pay increases as incentive for keeping quiet. As for Quentin Vaugrenard, any official documents bearing his name are to be seized and destroyed. He was an Outlander, his brand mark will tell the city papers all they need to know.”

“Christ, you know how to lay on the sauce.”

“And as for you, my old friend, I should hope this never happens again.”

“I promise I’ll be a good boy from now on,” Pontius smirked. “After one more.” He got up and reached for the man’s glass of brandy, but Rodin quickly blocked him. Good reflexes for a bloated old codger.

“I’m placing you on administrative leave effective immediately. For God’s sake Pontius, get yourself together!”

“Yes sir,” the commander saluted. “Oh, by the way, don’t bother yourself with the paperwork. I quit.” With that, he tore the silver badge from the right lapel of his trench coat and tossed it onto the man’s desk with a rather satisfying thunk. It had been a long night of hell, and far too long of a morning. He’d had enough of the sickening corporate farce ever since DuPont’s exile, and it was high time for a change. It was also time he stopped drinking. Somehow, he would have to atone for his sins. Somehow, he had to rediscover the vigilant hero within himself that once led protests against the Dalishkova so many years ago in Helias. He had to make things right again. He had to find his son. Even if he failed, it was the only way to honor Pascal. Quitting the force was a start. The veteran made his way to the door.

“You will of course return your phase unit and the rest of your gear!” Rodin bellowed.

“No I won’t,” Pontius grinned, reaching for the knob. “Guess you’ll just have to bend me over your knee and spank me. Have a nice life. Oh, and don’t expect my vote in the upcoming elections.”

It felt good to finally slam that door behind him. It felt even better to lumber down that hallway in full confidence, knowing he was retired with benefits that could never be axed. He had all the time he would ever need, and more. As he rounded the corner to the reception desk, the young blonde secretary gasped in disapproval. He had forgotten the cigar was still in his hand. A trail of ash extended down the long hallway behind him.

“Sir,” she said with a patronizing smile, “I do appreciate your service to our city, but you can’t be smoking that in here. Now if you’d please kindly-” He ashed on her stack of papers, prompting her to shriek and pat them down furiously with her cap, disheveling her hair in the process. “Honestly, what the hell is wrong with you?!” she yelled.

But Pontius was already halfway to the door, amused at the fact that several Dispatchers gathered near the entrance seemed to be viewing her with visible disdain for insulting a decorated war hero. For them, it was as if she had disrespected the pope. The district commander gave them all a curt nod, which they returned before he stepped through the revolving door and out onto the street as a free man.

It was rush hour in the Metropoliès. No matter where Pontius turned his gaze, the bustling crowds, the bells of streetcars, and the overwhelming honking of horns awaited. He felt trapped in an ocean of sound. His head swam. His stomach turned. Then a sudden sharp pain ripped through his skull again from back to front, conjuring flashbacks of the previous night, and that one elusive figure he just couldn’t seem to shake from his memory.

“Severo,” he breathed. “Where are you?”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 6

Pontius struggled to stay awake. He and the remaining squads of Dispatchers in charge of the west gate had been called into the office of General Rodin at midday for a firm bureaucratic reprimanding. They stood in line formation alongside the right of his desk now, arms tucked behind them and feet at the edge of an overly ornate tapestry rug whilst his sputtering screams of rage echoed off the chamber walls. He’d been at it for twenty minutes now.

The aging district commander closed his eyes with a sigh and tried in vain to pretend he was somewhere else. A pulsing migraine had set in around the ten minute mark. Still, it was nice to fantasize about the good old days of vacationing on the Sea of Helene; the plesiosaurs extending their long necks out from under the waves, the statue of the Salt God on bent knee over his sword, the naked courtesans bathing in the shallows with foam covering their tender breasts…

“PONTIUS!” the general shouted in his face, ripping him from his thoughts. “Pay attention.”

“Yes sir.” He waited for the man to step away before resuming the daydream.

It hadn’t been the easiest morning. He awoke in a cold sweat shortly before dawn with the worst hangover of his life. All throughout the night, he had tossed and turned, visited by an array of dark terrors both familiar and foreign. Flashbacks of Pascal, the battle, Igor, and other memories of things long past came to haunt him even in the daylight. To make matters worse, Gabriel and Antoine brought him to the hospital after he’d blacked out two blocks over from his assigned post. That meant the entire Dispatchers force was now aware that he wasn’t following orders, if they weren’t also aware of his drinking problem. Not that he cared. His stint as district commander would only last for the next couple weeks. After the mayor’s annual farce of a welcome gala, he could slip back into comfortable obscurity and leave this mess behind him to focus on what really mattered—finding Severo and bringing him home.

“How could you be so goddamn irresponsible?! Each and every one of you is an utter disgrace!” General Rodin continued. The man paced back and forth among the ranks, seething with authoritarian fury. Pontius rolled his eyes at the subterfuge. Archibald Rodin was in fact a leading corporate head who bought out the remaining Dispatcher precincts following DuPont’s exile. In the process, Governor Saunier quietly sent Pontius into retirement. It was his way of saving face and putting an end to a regime which held a very bad reputation in the minds of the Cavarice public; however, it also left someone wildly unqualified in charge of the most important security force in all of Viktorium. Of course none of the boys present in the room were aware of this fact. Probably why most of them were shaking in their boots.

“Now that the Outlanders have managed to reenter the city, I certainly hope you all know what’s at stake with LaCour’s welcome gala preparations in full swing. I think it goes without saying what happens next. An immediate full-scale investigation will be conducted over the course of the coming week, pending results of an internal inquiry.” The four squad leaders in attendance groaned. “Shut up!” Rodin yelled. “At this point, you ought to consider yourselves lucky you’re still on the job! If I could spare the manpower, I would suspend all of you without pay. But being that we lost no less than four squads in the senseless bloodshed that occurred last night, we’ll need all the boys we can get for gala security.” The man stopped pacing at the middle of the lineup. “Officers Simon and Perceval, you’re on recruiter duty in the Metropoliès tonight.”

“But sir-”

“The press will be having a field day at Morcourt, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to shine!”

“All due respect,” Pontius interjected, “that’s a horrible idea. Unless you’d like these two baby-faced jokers to be spokesmen for the entire Dispatchers force in front of the media. We have a reputation to uphold. At least two squads will need to provide additional security at Morcourt for the press conference to be sure no one assassinates La Cour. Now I can spare two extra teams at the expense of-”

“That won’t be necessary,” Rodin cut him off. “The mayor has his own private squads, and the last thing I need is for you to abandon your post at the wall following a critical attack. But that is something you did last night, wasn’t it?” The man narrowed his gaze and stepped over to Pontius, stopping inches from his face. He sniffed the air. Shit. “Why don’t you tell us, in your own words, Commander Pontius, why that was?”

He hesitated. Not because General Rodin was intimidating; quite the opposite was true. The chubby man stood a full foot shorter than him and possessed considerably less fighting skills, though he did manage to intimidate the rest of the captains in attendance. But it was difficult to recall the full details of everything that had happened between the actual event and his nightmares. He wished Pascal were here. The scrawny boy, though stupid, had proven himself a godsend in his final moments. In fact, he was the very reason Pontius was still alive right now. The district commander took a deep breath and resolved to do his best in memory of the fallen officer.

“The bomb went off a little after eight,” he explained. “Myself and two other squads were gathered on the wall above the west gate at that time. Pascal, Serge, Conrad, Abel, couple others. Pascal was arguing with me about opening the door because Captain Georges was knocking below. I expressly forbade him to do it, but he moved for the switch anyway. Then the blast came…Igor and his cohorts showed up. Killed three squads, easy.” Pontius winced a moment at his migraine before continuing. “I stumbled…down the stairs with my bum leg, grabbed a phase unit from one of the fallen kids. Took out as many Outlanders as I could. After that, Gabriel and his team arrived from the south end a couple minutes late. I saw Igor escape down an alley and tried to go after him. Got ambushed, that’s the last I remember before I was knocked out.”

“I see,” the general said, crinkling his nose and backing away. Pontius imagined he still reeked of alcohol. Rodin said nothing of it. “And you didn’t think to send Gabriel and the other arriving units after him? After all, you’ve a bum leg. And approximately how many Outlanders did you say you did away with on your own?”

The squad leaders in the room glared expectantly at him. Flashes of color and clanging metal filled the district commander’s mind as he struggled to remember the missing details of that fateful hour. He could recall a myriad of traveling blue sparks, but he wasn’t sure if that was phase unit fire or something else. Red was also a color that seemed rather prominent, and perhaps it was blood, but then came the slicing of metal, then white, then an ever-enveloping blackness…

“Pontius?”

“Yeah, sorry,” the man sighed. “Doc says I probably have a concussion after my fall on the sidewalk. Things are a little foggy right now.” The hangover migraine certainly wasn’t helping matters. The narrow space behind his eyeballs ached, his stomach was doing back flips, and his skull felt like a cement mixer. Still, there seemed one elusive detail between all those nightmarish flashes that presented itself again and again, as if the traveling blue spark were slowly reconnecting old synapses in his mind. He kept going back to the last figure he’d seen before blacking out, yet every time he tried to think clearly, the back of his head hit the pavement again. But he was almost certain it had been Severo. He was certain it was his son…

“I will of course expect a written report from you on this matter within three days time, no exceptions,” the general stated.

“Understood, sir.”

“As for the rest of you, your personal accounts are due on my desk by tomorrow morning. Rest assured gentlemen, no stone will be left unturned in this investigation. Every eye, every ear, every lingering touch, taste, and stench will spare no vantage point! I want to know exactly how those peasants managed to construct a bomb, and how in the bloody hell they got a hold of your phase units to do so! And I swear on my life, if it’s discovered in the course of your duties that any one of you aided these rats in any manner whatsoever, expulsion will be the very least of your worries! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir!” the squads shouted in broken unison.

“Now get the hell out of my office.” The four squads quickly made a beeline for the door, more than eager to leave. Pontius leaned off his cane and prepared to stumble out with the rest of them, but the general blocked his path. “Not you,” Rodin sneered. “If I might have a few words.”

“Almost a half-hour speech and you still didn’t rattle off enough, eh?” the commander sighed. Far behind him, the office door clicked shut, leaving them trapped in that stuffy old room that smelled of so much mahogany and leather-bound books. His aging superior circled around the desk and dug a bottle of brandy out from the bottom drawer with a single glass. “Well I guess that means I’m in trouble.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 4

Mordechai’s chosen meeting place was an abandoned three-story warehouse approximately five blocks south of Barreau Orphanage. Under normal circumstances, Max would have been reluctant to be seen carrying several potato sacks worth of parts down the vacant streets. Fortunately, another laundromat was still in operation not far from the building, so if they ran into any Dispatchers along the way, no one would be any the wiser as to their contents.

He had brought what was left of the eldest boys with him; Matthieu, Aaron, and Camilo, ranging in age from thirteen to fifteen. Each had witnessed their fair share of blood and carnage over the past several months, but the young leader was now much more concerned that their pitiful group only amounted to four in total. The rest of those worth their salt had left with Lucien the previous night. Those who hadn’t were with Bernard, as they were all under twelve. Considering that this was also the first black market deal which Max was carrying out himself, it only further hammered home the point that Lucien was, in fact, a valuable asset without whom Barreau Orphanage might not survive.

“Lousy prick,” the elder muttered, feeling the weight of the parts dig into his back as they rounded the last corner.

“I know, I can’t stand Mordechai either,” Aaron sighed.

Max smirked. “I wasn’t talking about him. This would have been so much easier with Lucien. But no, he had to go and fuck everything up,” the elder panted. “Now there’s four of us, and god knows how many boys Mordechai has polishing his shoes. I just hope we get out alive. And with our genitals intact.”

“Aren’t most of them younger than us?” Camilo pointed out.

“Yeah, but they’re also as dangerous as the Outlanders if you let them get too close, so try to stay a few steps behind me.”

“Yes sir.”

The warehouse lay just ahead on the next block to their right, a crumbling red brick structure surrounded by a ten-foot wall with an iron gate at the entrance. The signage overhead, half-destroyed but still legible, was the only indicator of the business that once existed on this dilapidated lot: ZUVIBAN CLOCKWORKS. In its heyday, it had been a subsidiary of DuPont Steamworks & Co., manufacturing the internal clocks which kept Cavarice running, from the trains and automated streetcars to the subways and buses, as well as such things as streetlamps and traffic lights. But like every other business in the western districts following DuPont’s exile, it had been scrapped in favor of more profitable ventures closer to the Metropoliès.

Max surveyed the street to be sure no one was watching them before slipping through the gate with his group. It had been secured with a chain, but there was enough slack for anyone to maneuver their way in. The complex looked much worse from the inside. Crumbling stone, glass, and rusted metal scraps of clock parts lined the entire length of the overgrown courtyard from end to end. Weeds were reclaiming the sidewalk. Burnt rags that were once company uniforms lay half-buried in the mud, along with broken pocket watches and the occasional name tag. The irony of it was certainly not lost on the Barreau boys. Time had stopped here long ago.

As the group proceeded up the front steps of the stone walkway, Max could already hear raucous shouting and laughter coming from inside the building. A shudder went down his spine. He immediately backed against the wall and gestured for the others to stay out of sight behind him until the cacophony died down. All went quiet for a short time. For several seconds, the elder gazed back over the empty courtyard, solemn and desolate. He watched. He waited. Then came a series of audible gasps and groans, followed by a horrible wet cracking sound. Max broke into a cold sweat.

“He’s making them fight,” the boy trembled. He reached in his pocket and flipped open his watch. “Four minutes to eight. What do you guys think, should we break them up with a few warning shots?”

“I thought you said they outnumber us,” Matthieu said. “You really want to piss off Mordechai?”

“It’s not like he ever risks his neck for Dispatcher parts. The man’s a bloody coward of a middleman who hides behind an army of helpless children that don’t know any better. They have every reason to leave. Maybe if they see us refusing to take his shit for once, it’ll give them the proper push,” the elder said, rummaging through his sack to dig out a phase unit. “Besides, I’m tired of walking in to see children knocked unconscious.”

“You’re the one in charge,” Aaron shrugged. “You don’t answer to us.”

“Maybe so, but I feel I should. After all, who does Mordechai answer to?” Max finished strapping on the phase unit, only to hear the door suddenly creak open behind him. A scrappy, familiar-looking boy of about twelve poked his head out.

“I don’t know,” the child grinned, “who does Mordechai answer to?”

“Olivier!” Igor’s second-in-command. The young elder didn’t stop to think. He lunged forward and seized the boy, covering his mouth so he couldn’t scream, and whirled him back against the wall for questioning. “What the hell are you doing? Is Igor here?! Answer me, you shit!”

“That’s probably hard to do while you’re covering his mouth,” Camilo pointed out.

Max sighed and took a deep breath. “If I let go, you promise you’re not going to squeal?” Olivier nodded. The elder obliged, though kept him pinned against the wall of the alcove. “All right. Talk.”

“Maybe Igor is here, maybe he isn’t. Either way, do you honestly think you’d make it out of here alive with either of our gangs against you? Our combined numbers are about fifty to four. You don’t stand a chance, Max Ferrier.”

“Perhaps not. Doesn’t mean I’m scared to take a few of you with me,” the elder smirked, sparking a blue pulse in his palm aside the boy’s face. Olivier’s expression immediately shifted to one of pants-shitting terror. “As it so happens, I doubt I’ll piss off Mordechai when he sees I’ve got a lovely hostage for him.”

“Wait!” the boy protested. “I swear I know nothing, I came here on my own.”

“Bullshit!”

“Not all of us want to stay with the Outlanders, okay? Especially not after what Igor has done to some of us.”

“Well good luck with that. You’re inside city walls now, so if the Dispatchers catch you, you’re finished. And don’t expect me to take pity on you either. Quentin is dead. I have nothing to say to the Outlanders.”

“He’s dead?!” Olivier gasped.

“That’s news to you?”

“Everything h-happened so fast last night,” the boy sniffed, starting to cry. “I walked through the hole in the gate after everyone else had gone. Most of my friends were killed, I don’t r-really talk to the older boys,” he sobbed. “I’m all alone, I’m just looking for someone to stay with, I swear!”

A slight pain fluttered in Max’s chest as he gazed at the tearful boy. If Olivier’s story was indeed true, he couldn’t help but feel empathy. At the same time, the elder had come across his share of liars, and he knew younger children were particularly adept at turning on the waterworks to get what they wanted. It was a survival tactic they used well in rundown districts. But whether or not the boy was being honest with him didn’t matter. There was no time to deal with it now.

Max decided his initial course of action was best; taking Olivier hostage as a spy might impress Mordechai enough to end the gladiator match between his newest initiates. Perhaps he’d even give the Barreau boys a bigger cut of money for turning the boy over. At least Olivier would then have a home. He might get abused like the others of course, there was little doubt about that. But he was an Outlander. Max was fairly confident he would rise in the ranks on his own. Then again, that’s if Igor isn’t hiding just behind the door.

“Goddamn it, you are a genuine piece of shit,” the elder sighed, powering off the phase unit. “I have an idea, but you’re going to have to trust me and keep quiet. Don’t struggle or I’ll knock you out, understood?” Olivier nodded. Max reached down to his undershirt and proceeded to tear a long strip of fabric from off the bottom. He split it into two, rolling one into a ball which he then shoved in the boy’s mouth. He tied the other around his face in a makeshift gag and handed him over to Matthieu and Aaron.

“Think this will help?” Aaron asked.

“If Mordechai is as dumb as the former owners of the parts he’s buying. Matthieu, follow close behind me with Olivier. Aaron and Camilo, you’ll be the lookout behind us in case he’s planning an ambush. Let’s go.”

Max heaved the sack of parts back over his shoulder and powered the phase unit back on. He cautiously crept to the open door and peered inside. He looked to the right, then the left, and up the staircase. No one seemed to be hiding, so he gestured for the others to slip in with him. A sudden bang came from behind. Startled, the elder threw out his arm and almost fired a pulse straight at Camilo. The boy had leaned back to close the door, but did so a bit more forcefully than he’d intended. Max shot him a death glare instead before continuing on to the main floor of the abandoned structure.

Sounds of the fight could still be heard, closer now, along with the occasional cheer when a loud thump or crack kicked up dust from the aging floorboards. The old warehouse had a distinctive metallic smell to it which wasn’t entirely unpleasant, though it reminded Max of the taste of blood mixed with paint fumes and sawdust. He was sure that the latter two were leftover from the factory itself, though the former seemed to be a more recent addition. The elder plugged his nose and crouched low near an assortment of overturned tables and smashed wooden crates. He gestured for the others to follow him around a short maze of debris across the room. There, another scent greeted his nostrils. Sweat.

“Can you see anything?” Matthieu whispered.

“I think so.” Max poked his head over a table that was flipped on its side. Out on the center of the floor, a semicircle of young boys stood with excitement to watch the two newest initiates trade punches. The younger of the pair looked to be about ten, and was considerably more reluctant to be fighting than the toned teenager pummeling him. Cuts and abrasions covered his face and chest. His nose and mouth were bleeding, and he was missing several front teeth. One of his eyes was black and blue. Two of the fingers on his left hand were clearly broken. Yet no matter how much he cried and sobbed and shouted “please stop!” the relentless teen continued to beat him into a goddamn puree.

And looking on from the head of the semicircle audience was seated the dark-featured Mordechai, aged twenty-four, a sly grin plastered on his face. In one hand rested an open bottle of gin and in the other, a lion tamer’s whip. The teen fighting in the circle glanced back at him every few seconds, but each time, the man would crack his whip across the boy’s back as if he were a circus animal and shout in a drunken rage.

“Finish him Tiger, before I give you more stripes! What are you waiting for?! NOW!”

Max accidentally dialed his phase unit up to the highest setting as he scrambled to fire a pulse into the rafters. He wanted nothing more than to end this maniacal sadist right where he sat, but he knew the orphanage was at stake. If he had the chance later, he would surely come back to free these boys from the clutches of that vile snake. In fact he vowed it, but that also meant keeping the doors of the orphanage open, and unfortunately that venture would not be possible right now without Mordechai. What kind of name is that, anyhow?

The elder took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and fired a pulse at one of the large lights overhead. A loud blast of electricity shattered the glass into a million pieces. It rained down like diamonds on the gathering of boys and their smug leader, sending all but the pureed ten year-old scrambling for cover.

“WHO THE FUCK FIRED THAT?!” Mordechai raged.

“Sorry!” Max snapped, poking his head out from behind the table. “Just thought I should test this thing out before selling it to you. Make sure it’s in working order and all.” He and the rest of the group stepped over the debris to cover the poor young child still writhing half-naked on the floor. “I also wanted to remind you that we have a meeting right now, in case you forgot.”

“Oh, you’re funny, Ferrier!” the leader snarled. “Who’s the cute little koala you brought with you?”

“You mean…this adorable little present we’ve bound and gagged just for you?” Max smiled, even as he felt his skin crawl. He had long suspected the man was some sort of sexual deviant, though he’d seen no evidence as of yet. Mordechai licked his lips at the statement, and that was all he needed to know. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice him. He was lurking just outside-”

“How much do you want?” the man cut him off.

“Nothing extra. Provided we can trade him for your, uh…pureed little fellow on the floor here.”

“Forget it! These kids are my family. We take care of each other.”

“Yes I can see that, they’re all terrified of you. But see, this little one here, his name is Olivier,” Max grinned, grabbing the boy from Matthieu and shoving him forward. “And Olivier needs to be taught some manners. Do you know why?” The child wasn’t one to struggle much, but he did now, and Max only hoped it was because he was acting. He hoped, too, that he had a brand scar to show off for proof. To that end, the elder slipped a hand under the boy’s shirt to check. Sure enough, he felt it on the left side of his chest. “Olivier is an Outlander.”

“Really now,” Mordechai smirked, setting down his bottle of gin as the anxious children behind him looked on from the shadows. It was difficult to tell whether they were afraid of Max or whether they were afraid of any repercussions at the hands of their leader once the Barreau boys were out of sight. But much as the orphanage elder wished to save them all, his mind was only set on helping one—Olivier. He wasn’t about to leave this boy in that man’s clutches now. Not after what he’d seen today. A new plan had come to mind. Take this evil snake for all he’s worth.

“It’s true,” Max said. “See for yourself.” He reluctantly raised the child’s grimy undershirt to show off the brand scar.

“Yeah yeah, get your filthy hands off him-”

“Ah ah,” Max shoved him back to Matthieu, “not until you pay us for the parts.”

“How much you want me to pay for the parts of him?” Mordechai licked his lips again and wound the tamer’s whip tightly around each hand until his fingers turned purple. “I’d give you extra. Gladly. It wouldn’t be a problem. Wouldn’t be a problem at all,” the man grinned, pulling the whip taut. “Hell, for him, I might even give you an advance. Always wanted to teach an Outlander some manners.” A cacophony of scared whispers came from the shadows.

Inside, Max was seething with a rage he’d never felt before. Even Lucien hadn’t managed to strike such a nerve. This was new. It was an odd, unfamiliar, unsettling sensation deep in his bones that bordered on homicidal, and only one thought existed now that might calm him if he turned to it. Never still, he repeated to himself like a mantra. Never still. Never still. Breathe in, breathe out. Never kill. It wasn’t working. The rage remained.

“Dispatcher parts first!” the elder managed to spit. “We have plenty of them.” Matthieu, Aaron, and Camilo stepped forward to dump out their wares on the wooden floor, making sure to keep Olivier out of sight behind them. Max hoped that wasn’t a grave mistake, though it seemed to redirect Mordechai’s attention. Among the parts were two phase units (the third was on Max’s wrist), three utility belts, three watches, four spare batteries, three pairs of goggles, a canteen, two stun rods, two spare emitters, one trench coat, and a specialized custom compass for detecting anomalies outside of the normal frequency range.

“Oh, this is good,” Mordechai said, fiddling with the compass. “This is very good. I have to say, you continue to impress me, Ferrier. I don’t know how you do it.”

“I have my ways,” the elder said with a contemptuous smile.

“Oh ho ho, Maxy boy!” the snake sucked his teeth. “There may be time to teach you some manners yet. Here.” Reaching deep into the pockets of his black leather trench coat, Mordechai dug out a substantial assortment of large bills and placed them into Max’s hand. Some were Cavarice currency, others were Sereinnes Province. He also handed out some coins from Helias and Falvarre, even a few Francs. Naturally, this meant that Max would have to take the trouble of going all the way to the east end of the Metropoliès just to get the currency exchanged.

“What the hell is this?!” the elder frowned.

“Your payment,” Mordechai grinned. “Unless of course you take that phase unit off your wrist and give me your boy Olivier over there. I know you had no intention of doing it. But it’d make things a lot easier for you, really. Make up for your naughty little attitude.” The man released the whip from his tight grip, allowing the length of it to drag on the floor. “And for the record, I’m not stupid. I know how bad you need the money. I’m willing to take a loss on the Dispatcher parts for him.”

Max’s heart thundered in his chest as he glanced back at Olivier, who was visibly shaking and crying. Shaking, but also nodding, almost as if he could sense there was no other way out of this. If he didn’t give himself up, it was very likely that Mordechai would not let any of them go. Sure, they could grab up the phase units, but none of the boys with him now knew how to use them. They would be eating the leather of that whip before they so much as strapped the devices onto their fragile wrists. Damn it, I haven’t planned this far ahead yet!

“Come on, now. You’re not going to get a better deal,” Mordechai said.

The elder hesitated, despite the urgings of his group.

“Just let him go, Max,” Matthieu sighed. “He’s an Outlander. We can’t trust-”

“SHUT UP!” the elder roared. He was getting sick of hearing it. Quentin was dead, but apparently that meant nothing to them.

“Oh, I see,” Mordechai said. “You have a soft spot for him, eh? I’ll tell you what, Ferrier.” The young man dug even more large bills out of his pocket, this time all in Cavarice currency, and kicked a phase unit over to the young elder. “I’ll let you keep the one on your wrist, too. Two phase units, plus every bill I have.” He proceeded to count the denominations out in Max’s face as if he were a banker. “For one…little…Outlander. No?” Mordechai dropped it all to the floor in front of him and lit up a cigarette before backing away. “I’ll give you second to think it over.”

Why am I so conflicted now? the elder thought. In the beginning, he would have handed over a known Outlander to Mordechai with no problem. They were the ones who had attacked the wall, after all. None of them deserved sympathy or fair treatment for what they had done. Trust was not a luxury, either. And yet all the same, Max felt his pity getting the best of him whenever he glanced back at Olivier, despite knowing that his gang consisted of little more than thieves and murderers. For if he trusted Quentin with his life and the boy had still died protecting his family of Outlanders, perhaps many of them were not that bad. Maybe it was just Igor. Maybe they were all brainwashed, same as the rest of Cavarice. Maybe…

Conscience will only hold you back. That’s what Lucien had said last night. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about. But that’s not who Maxwell Ferrier was. He was a leader who took chances, who compromised for his brethren, who knew to trust his gut when something felt right. And giving up Olivier was not what was right. Still, it seemed the Outlander was now willing to sacrifice himself for the Barreau boys. Everyone else told him not to trust these people. They were thieves, murderers, rapists, cannibals. But were they liars?

Max noticed that a mischievous smile was spreading across Olivier’s face now, though he’d been gagged with scraps of undershirt. Tears had soaked the thin fabric, but the boy did not seem to be crying anymore. If anything, he looked elated about something. He nodded and pointed down at the floor, down at where that glorious pile of Viktorium money lay. He mumbled something to the elder and jerked his head to the right, as if to say ‘scram’.

“What are you trying to say?” Max asked, desperate for answers about this curious turn of behavior. “Quentin wanted to tell me something before it was too late. What is it? Tell me! Here, let me help you.” The elder reached to loosen the knot on the gag, but Olivier shook his head. “Don’t take it off?” The boy nodded.

“Time’s up, Ferrier!” Mordechai interrupted, grabbing up his bottle of gin and charging over. “Have you made your final decision?”

“I believe I have,” Max hung his head and swallowed hard. That’s when he noticed a curious movement in the reflection of one of the Dispatcher watches. Olivier wasn’t pointing at the money, the elder realized. He was pointing at the time. There were ten seconds until 8:10. “We accept your offer.” With that, Max and the others pushed the young Outlander forward.

“Wise choice,” Mordechai smiled, lunging forward to grab the boy.

But before he could lay so much as a finger on the child, a sudden glint of metal cut through the air from the right. Max couldn’t tell what it was until he noticed the blade of a knife buried deep in Mordechai’s forearm. The man cried out in pain as a gush of blood spurted all over the stolen Dispatcher parts.

Outlanders leaped down from the rafters with pistols and knives in hand and began dragging Mordechai’s followers out into the light. Shouts of protest and bloodcurdling screams filled the air while the younger boys kicked and struggled to get away. But the gang took them by their hair, their ankles, their arms or ears, any body part they could. Meanwhile, Max dove to the floor with Olivier and the rest of his group, staying close to the wall behind a pile of debris until the mayhem was over.

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Night of the Wolf – Part 3

The morning was dreary and cold. Max had been sitting on the radiator in front of his windowsill for almost an hour now to warm up, clad in only a ragged pair of dark brown trousers. It was almost time to wake the boys. He let out a yawn, fighting fatigue as he drew his knees up to his chest. The shift of his weight set off an odd sensation down below. For a moment, he’d forgotten why he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“Laundry day,” he sighed. The young elder had hoped to put off thinking on the events of the previous day until at least after breakfast, but the absence of undergarments triggered a sudden flashback in his mind. “Captain Georges…” They had spent all of yesterday morning at the Outlanders’ villa waiting to trap a squad of Dispatchers and steal their equipment. The plan had gone off mostly without a hitch, until Igor decided to take Georges hostage. The rest was a blur, up until the attack on the wall last night.

“Quentin,” Max whimpered. The boy who had been their only connection to the Outlanders gang. The scrappy drifter he had worked so hard to turn around from the first day he had arrived at Barreau Orphanage several months ago. The sensitive soul with auburn hair and a heart of gold who had become like a younger brother to Max. He had died with the Outlanders, undignified, like a piece of gutter trash. But why? You said you needed to tell me something when the time was right. What was it?

Max gazed back on his tiny flat. To the bed, the creaky floorboards, the trap door and the hidden crawl space beneath it. Even the rug was still out of place from when the boy had thrown it aside, convinced that the Dispatchers were coming for him. Of course they had. And then that afternoon when Max returned, he had looked scared. No, that wasn’t the right word. Petrified. Yes. Quentin was right petrified out of his wits, even as he’d sat here in the very spot where the elder was now sitting, spreading out his tiny fingers to search for a sense of warmth that poor child would never feel again.

Max sniffed and drew his knees up closer to cry. The thin pipes of the radiator caught his bony rear instead, causing him to lose balance and slip against the window.

“No!” he cried out. Too late. One involuntary swipe of his hand against the glass, and half the messages they had scrawled to each other in the condensation the previous day were decimated. Ah well. No matter. Wouldn’t have lasted anyway, and yet still a tightness of something unresolved was building in the young elder’s chest. Quentin would not have just run off without leaving behind some sort of clue. If it were that important, he would have found a way. A sudden knock at the door tore Max from his thoughts.

“Come in,” the elder said, wiping his face. He didn’t know who it was, but he figured they couldn’t make things much worse.

“It’s just me.” Bernard entered, closing the door behind him. Max’s newest second-in-command was clad in little more for laundry day, save for a greasy undershirt. He seemed to be holding a collection of telegrams in hand. “Feel like talking?”

“It’s funny,” Max said. “Yesterday, I sat in this very spot and asked Quentin the same. He didn’t want to. But we wrote all this in the window. He said there was something he had to tell me. I keep going over it again and again in my head, looking for some clue as to what it might have been. Still nothing.”

“Whatever it was, I’m sure we’ll find out in time. The voices of the dead scream loudest in Viktorium, after all.”

“Let’s hope the living can still hear them,” Max sighed, plopping down off the radiator. He looked back on the window. The many fingerprints and curved lines strewn about the pane—those that had survived his hand, anyway—looked to him like the rivers on a map. Never still. Strange, that those words should return to him just now. He recalled the voice of an old woman having spoken them long ago. A kind voice, full of love. There were candles, words on a page…that’s it. She had read to him. “Never still,” he said aloud.

“What?” Bernard appeared confused.

“Something from the past,” Max clarified. “Back before I came to Viktorium, this older orphan boy took care of me. But he was always getting us into trouble. The last house we lived in, there was an old woman who used to read to me every night when everyone else had gone to bed. The squiggles on the window here reminded me of rivers. A story with rivers…‘the river is never still’, she said. ‘The tide is always constant, shifting. It shapes everything in its wake, creating puzzle pieces that fit together if only you step back.”

“Think we should retrace our steps from yesterday?”

“Might be worth a go.” Max gestured to the crumpled rug on the floor. “I can’t bring myself to move anything. Doesn’t feel right. Like a crime scene or something. I’d hate to think he died in vain.”

“He knew we loved him, Max,” Bernard put an arm around him. “And if there is an afterlife even after this…perhaps we’ll see him again.”

Max let out a chuckle.

“What’s funny?”

“You remember when he first came to the orphanage?”

“Oh god,” Bernard laughed. “How could I forget? He stole the blanket right off of Tomas in the middle of the night because his wasn’t big enough.”

“And the tug of war woke everyone up, remember?”

“He had lice, so we had to get rid of the blanket anyway.”

“Took him outside, hosed him off naked in the alley!” Max snickered. “The look on his face, he was so mad and kept trying to go back for the blanket even after we burned it. And then,” the elder gasped hysterically, “Tomas came out with the phase unit to delouse him-”

“He pissed on him and got electrocuted, and the two chased each other around the entire house!” Bernard laughed.

“He was always stealing my things when he got angry at me, too,” Max grinned. “My old silver watch went missing one morning, and I found all the pieces strewn in a trail leading to the closet in the office. All but the frame. Caught him chewing on the clock face! I didn’t know what to say, so I said…‘Do you know what time it is?’”

“You didn’t!”

“He said ‘break fast!’ and ran out the back door.”

“I never heard that one!” Bernard laughed. After some time, the two elders managed to catch their breath and settle down. Max stepped over to his dresser and threw on the last ragged shirt he had stuffed in the bottom drawer. Much as he enjoyed reminiscing about Quentin, there was much work ahead for the day, and still too many unsolved questions. None of them made any sense no matter how far back he could think.

“At least now we know the Outlanders are up to something bigger than just getting back to the city and scaring the shit out of everyone,” Max said. “Igor wouldn’t sacrifice that many of his minions if he didn’t think it was worth it. Whatever they’re here for, it’s worth dying over…anyway, what mail did we get?”

“Urgent telegram this morning,” Bernard said, handing him the letters.

“La Cour,” Max sighed, looking over the return address. “Probably about the gala. Great.” The elder tore open the envelope and sat down on his bed to read it. “I’ll need you to watch the boys tonight. Private meeting at Morcourt.”

Bernard chuckled. “The press will be crawling all over Centre Square after last night. Good luck getting to his doorstep.”

“Yeah. I’ll try to arrive by sundown.”

“Anything else you need?”

“Oh, goddamn it!” Max bit his lip and scrambled to the dressed to check his pocket watch. He hated to ask any more favors, but he’d almost forgotten. “You think you could take care of laundry shift in the meantime? I have to meet with Mordechai before breakfast to sell some of the parts from yesterday.”

He cringed as he spoke that last line. Mordechai, or ‘Papa Mordechai’ as he so oft insisted to be called, was a twenty-something orphanage reject and gang leader who surrounded himself with an army of naive young boys who were too weak to fend for themselves. Many of those under his watch could be seen sporting nasty bruises and lacerations, even fractures that hadn’t healed properly from the initiation process—Mordechai was a sadist who would force new members to fight one another for his own sick entertainment. Still, he offered protection from Dispatchers who would have otherwise exiled them to the desert. It was unfortunate he’d gotten to them before Max had.

“No problem,” Bernard assured the elder with a pat on the shoulder.

“You’re the best.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Yes…and no,” Max sighed. “Truthfully, I’d love to take in most of the boys he abuses, but you know how that goes.”

“Should I bring out the extra mattresses in case you manage to save a few?”

“Not necessary,” Max shook his head. “I’d rather just get this over with and try not to think about it. Besides, we don’t have time. It’s almost seven. Wake the boys, gather up the laundry, and take them to the mat. I’ll bring the oldest along with me and meet you for breakfast at the mess hall later…you know the drill.”

“Of course.”

As the two exited the bedroom, the elder still couldn’t shake the nervous feeling in his gut. It continued to grow, consuming what little resolve he had left over from the previous day. Meeting with Mordechai, he knew, would use up the last of it. He glanced back at the fading condensation on the window pane and the writing still visible from yesterday; the many squiggled lines like rivers, the words like passing ships. He looked, too, at his accidental hand prints which now dominated the frame. It seemed a storm was brewing, and had been for some time.

Never still, he thought to himself again. Those pieces fit together somehow. He wasn’t about to give up.

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House of Rats – Part 24

A lump caught up in the elder’s throat at the sight before them. They had just walked into a bloodbath. Torches were being placed along the perimeter in lieu of gas lamps, as most had been destroyed. The entire courtyard inside the west gate was lined with mangled corpses of Dispatchers and Outlanders alike. Many were missing limbs. Some, even heads.

Identification was proving a long and arduous process for the squads in charge of cleanup, and yet they were determined to do so regardless. Some had rushed stacks of papers from the old courthouse, others shuffled through notebooks. The press, too, seemed to have arrived early on the grisly scene to take photographs. And there, to the far left of the massacre, stood the city wall in all of its glory with a gigantic hole blown through the gate. Sparks and bolts still shot out from an assortment of frayed wires dangling about. Lieutenant Edmond seemed to be doing his damnedest to keep the press at bay, until finally he called over one of the squads in charge of identification to deal with them.

“Absolutely NO comments, got it?!” he grumbled to the squad, shoving his way past a throng of reporters. More were bounding in from up the street with pens and notebooks in their eager hands. Max counted only a handful, perhaps ten or so. But their numbers were definitely growing by the minute. Pretty soon, half the length of Rue D’Or would be crawling with journalists from every paper and news outlet in Cavarice.

“This is bad,” Max gasped. “This is very bad.”

“How the hell are we supposed to keep them all away?” one of the Dispatchers protested.

“I don’t know, break their cameras, arrest them if you have to!” Edmond shouted, marching in the direction of the Barreau boys. He appeared authoritative enough, though it didn’t take a genius to realize it was a mistake to leave him as acting captain for too long.

“Sir, would you like to put that on your official statement?” a reporter asked.

“Fuck off, how’s that for a statement! I’m sorry, this really isn’t my job, would somebody please get these insects off of me?!”

“I will, with pleasure,” Solomon stepped forward. “Shall we leave our gas masks on?”

“If you think that will frighten them away, by all means,” the lieutenant grinned. “You boys can disperse, I’ll take it from here. Max and Bernard are good friends.”

“Aye, sir. I should note that your third lieutenant did manage to confiscate this from them,” the man said, handing over the phase unit. “We believe it’s one of the stolen ten.”

“Stolen ten, eh? I doubt it.” The young boy grabbed a torch from several feet away and thrust it into the ground in front of them for more light. He turned the unit several ways, examining it for fair assessment. “The serial number checks out. Or it would, if Antoine had bothered to read the decimal point. Older numbering system means it’s an older unit. Also, the dial for the pulse only goes up to five. The most this thing will do is stun for a few hours, which hardly makes it a danger to us. That aside, we’ve got a magnificent hole in the wall. A child’s toy is really the least of my worries,” he said, tossing the unit to Bernard. “Now would you please take care of these bloodthirsty hounds from the press before there’s another massacre to deal with!”

“Yes sir. Men at attention!” Solomon called. “Let’s have some reporters for dinner.” The cloaker coats left in cacophonous laughter and began fanning out to encircle the group of reporters, many of whom began to complain about censorship. Ultimately, it would be of little use. The story would be blown open and spread far and wide, and by this time tomorrow, it was quite possible the entire city would be well on its way to anarchy.

Max glared at Edmond as the young Dispatcher fumbled with his pockets to remove a small key and proceeded to unlock their handcuffs. Once his wrists were free, the elder plucked the silver object from the boy’s fingers and took care of Bernard.

“Yeah, sure, if you want to just…pass that around, whatever,” Edmond sighed. “Look, I can’t tell you all how sorry I-”

“Save it!” Max snapped. “Just what the hell is the meaning of all this?!”

The lieutenant bit his lip. “I’m doing the best I can here to keep this contained. I know it’s not good enough, but you need to listen to me right now. I haven’t the faintest idea how this all came about, but I can assure you that I have detectives on the case and we will get to the bottom of it. I do have my suspicions, but I don’t have proof. That said…I believe you’re missing someone.”

“No,” Max gasped. “Don’t you dare, Edmond. Don’t you dare tell me what I think you’re going to tell me!”

“Max,” the boy looked grim, “we have a body. If you’re able to identify this person, it would help us a great deal. There’s a young boy with a brand-”

“NO!” the elder shouted. Tears started to blur his vision as the lump in his throat grew ever more painful. “You are not telling me it’s him. Don’t you DARE tell me it’s Quentin!”

“Max,” Bernard reasoned, “we don’t know who it is. It could be any other Outlander.”

“He’s not a bloody Outlander, he’s a Barreau boy and he’s coming home!”

“All right, I believe you,” Bernard said, putting an arm around Max. “He’ll come home. Let’s just have a look, all right? It doesn’t change anything.”

“Come this way please,” Edmond motioned, leading the group farther up near the gate over piles of crumbling concrete and rubble. Rivers of blood draining out from the array of bodies took on a golden hue beneath the light of the torches as it seeped into the cracked pavement to spread like veins beyond. Red footprints led off in various directions, thanks to the arrival of the press and the Dispatchers still struggling with cleanup. Most of the bodies were being covered with black sheets or placed into cloth sacks to be recorded later. It would still be some time before the coroners arrived. Max shuddered to think that any of that blood might belong to Quentin. Stop it, he urged himself. We know nothing yet.

Overall, the scene was too chaotic to make much sense of anyway. How had the Outlanders managed a successful attack on the wall in the first place? Max had made absolutely certain that morning that Igor wouldn’t get his hands on a phase unit. Aside from technological imports into Cavarice from the mining city of Mendres—the vast majority of which were small chips used in the construction of phase units—there was no way he’d have been able to build a bomb with enough power on his own, either.

Something else was going on just beneath the surface, and somehow those ten missing units had wound up in Igor’s hands. That much was obvious. And either Edmond was incredibly naive, or he was lying. Given both Antoine and Severo’s remarks about corruption in the force, Max assumed the latter. Such thoughts only increased the intense sick feeling now taking root in his stomach with every step that drew them nearer to the body he prayed was not that of his missing friend.

A twinge of nausea shot up to his throat as the group stepped over corpses here or there. It hadn’t seemed as grisly from the darkness of the alley, but up close with the putrid stench of death everywhere, it was becoming increasingly harder to stomach. Get a grip, Max. You came out of the rat trap just fine. And yet somehow as he wiped away the tears, an even worse sight greeted him just up ahead: Lucien standing stoic over the body that Edmond appeared to be leading them to.

“What the hell is he doing here?!” Max shouted. “What the hell-” The elder began charging, but Bernard grabbed his shoulder to stop him.

“Max…not now.”

“I sent for him,” Edmond explained as they reached the corpse. “I sent for you all. You were gone by the time my squad arrived at the mess hall. Under normal circumstances we would have waited until morning, but given the nature of this attack being close to home…and the fact that this one seems to be one of the younger of the originals we branded-”

“Don’t say it!” Max snapped, lunging forward to tear off the black cloth covering the victim’s body.

“MAX!” Bernard yelled, but it was already done.

For a moment, the young elder could only stare in shock at the horror below. The boy’s body was soft and pale, approximately twelve to fourteen years of age, smudged with dirt and sand. His face had been completely blown off and cauterized, an obvious sign of close range, execution-style phase unit fire. What remained was little more than a charred black hole clean through the skull. Blood had splattered everywhere and matted onto his clothes amid clumps of melted ash blond hair. The clothes were the first thing to be recognizable, yet plenty of poor children in Viktorium wore the same tailor-made outfits. There was only one way to be sure.

Leaning forward—and covering his mouth in case he had to vomit—Max carefully grasped the collar of the boy’s torn, crimson-soaked shirt and peeled it down to reveal a branding scar midway down the chest in the shape of an “O”. The elder gasped as he noted every detail; the bottom section of the brand wasn’t fully complete, the way the scar stretched out a bit on the top quarter. He peeled the shirt to the side, checked the boy’s nipples. Quentin possessed an unmistakable birthmark about three inches below the right one on his ribcage.

The mark was present.

“No…” he breathed. “No, no, no!” He turned away from the group and hunched over, heart racing as a cold sweat overtook him. This couldn’t be happening. At some point, this day had to have been a bad dream. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep or passed out somewhere. Anywhere was better than this. The lower levels of the courthouse, the roof of Morcourt, even the villa outside the city walls. Max blinked, he pinched himself, slapped himself across the face, and yet still the vision of the courtyard stood before him. How could this have happened? How could I have let this happen? But none of it mattered. What mattered was that Quentin was now dead, and there was no going home now. Not for anyone. All of his dreams for a better life had died in the black hollow shell that remained of his skull. So it was true, then. It was possible to die in Viktorium.

“You,” Max whispered, turning back to Lucien. “It was you. This is your fault,” the elder shook his head. “This was your doing, you got him killed!”

And still, the same self-righteous smirk had not left his old friend’s face.

“I did nothing,” the lanky boy said. “Though I do recall warning you that it was a bad idea to keep him around. Outlanders never change. Come on Max, you knew that. The entire city of Cavarice knows that. Of course what we don’t know is exactly how you managed to steal those phase units, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“You son of a bitch!” Max charged forward, struggling against Bernard’s grasp and managed to sock him hard in the face. The boy grunted in pain and grabbed his nose. It had started to bleed. Edmond whipped a white handkerchief at him as he stepped over the body, positioning himself between the two boys.

“All right, that’s enough from both of you!” The second lieutenant remained stern. “Thank you for your help,” he nodded to Max. “I’m so sorry for your-”

“Shut up!” the elder snapped. “We don’t need your pity. My friend was executed by phase unit fire. I want to know who the fuck did this!”

“I give you my word I’ll get to the bottom of it,” Edmond assured him. But Max didn’t back down. He glared at the Dispatcher with all the fury of an alpha wolf protecting its pack. If there was one lesson he had learned in all of his days as a Barreau boy, it was that you could never trust a Dispatcher, no matter how nice or helpful any of them would seem. Deep down he knew, and perhaps had always known that ever since his arrival from the deadly house fire up north which had brought him here. Something wasn’t right. Why would I still be alive?

“I hope so,” Max backed away with the rest of his group, mostly at Bernard’s urging. “For your sake.”

“Look, you can head on home,” Edmond sighed. “I’ll get on the radio and see to it you’re not bothered by the squads doing cleanup on the surrounding blocks.”

“We appreciate it,” Bernard nodded, as they made haste for the alley.

“Would you like his body released to you?” the Dispatcher called.

“Forget it!” Max yelled back. “It’s just a shell anyway.”

“Right…”

The young elder stopped as they reached the walkway, turning back a moment to take one last glance at the bustling scene unfolding around the west gate. As expected, Solomon’s crew of cloaker coats hadn’t been able to hold back the journalists and photographers for long. There were simply too many of them marching down Rue D’Or, determined to get their story. Some of those more desperate had even picked up slabs of broken concrete along the way to fend off the Dispatcher squads doing cleanup. Of course none of it would be happening if Pontius had not abandoned his post, and that was if he were even still alive at this point. Either way, there was no stopping it now.

Max thought too of Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome gala, and all people they were meant to deceive. All of it was about to be blown open even wider than the hole in the west gate. Viktorium, the place of new beginnings. Viktorium, the land of victory over death. Viktorium, the utopia of social equality where everyone is treated alike no matter what race, gender, religion, or creed. Viktorium, the land of lies. Viktorium, the house of rats. There would be no sugar-coating it anymore. Not after this. Perhaps not ever again. For better or worse, the lie was over, the veil lifted.

There would certainly be no business had with the Outlanders anymore, either. All the Barreau boys could do now was watch and wait, eyes aglow with the fire in which their hopes and dreams were burnt to ash on this very night.

“Say, Bernard,” Max pondered, leaning against the brick wall as a swarm of journalists came crashing through a barricade the Dispatchers had erected. “What do you think is going to happen now?”

“If I had to pick the most concerning thing? People will finally see there is such a thing as death in Viktorium.”

“Yeah,” the elder smirked, turning back through the alley as a Molotov cocktail went flying through the air in Edmond’s direction. “Get ready for a shitstorm.”

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