Night Of The Wolf – Part 16

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

“Please, do come inside.”

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

“Are you ready?” the bishop said.

“Yes. Forgive me.”

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

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

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

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

“Creepy,” Severo muttered.

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“As do we all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps it was misfiled?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you know the one whom I seek.”

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

“Enverniam is not a difficult place to reach.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None of your concern.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

“It was just a theory-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 11

Gretel stared at the dark storm clouds gathering over the Metropolies district through the domed glass ceiling of Tesla’s lab. Under normal circumstances, she would have felt energized by this particular weather pattern. Instead, she felt drained, and for more reasons than one. Her journey home the previous night had taken several unexpected detours. First, she’d found herself in the throes of battle with a rather curious girl named Marceau, who claimed to be from another frequency. Second, she was questioned by a squad of Dispatchers upon attempting to access a secret security tunnel which would have gotten her back to the lab faster. And third, even after a series of frantic calls forced the squad off her trail to protect the wall, she discovered that the tunnel was sealed halfway down anyway. Upon arriving back to the lab, she found Tesla wide awake, and understandably quite furious. “We will discuss this in the morning,” he had said.

She had been sitting in his specialized electric chair for almost ten minutes now as the inventor paced about the room in a fit of anxiety. The silence was maddening. If he didn’t say something soon, she was about to send a bolt of lightning up through the ceiling to break the glass and shatter the tension by force. But as it was, she had exhausted the majority of her energy fighting off that stupid girl. She needed to recharge, and soon.

“Just what the hell were you thinking?!” the man blurted out. “You could have gotten yourself killed!”

“The phase unit works,” Gretel replied, clenching her teeth.

“That’s not the point! Do you have any idea what would have happened to you if it hadn’t? Or, god forbid, if it backfired?!”

“But it didn’t. Besides, you ought to thank me-”

“THANK you?!- ”

”We now know what the test runs couldn’t tell us!” the girl shouted. “It works.”

“Goddamn it!” the man wiped the sweat from his brow. “It is dangerous for you to be out there alone, do you understand?!”

“I thought we moved past this. You said you trusted me.”

“It isn’t you I don’t trust,” Tesla sighed.

“I can take care of myself without using my powers. I know to call the Dispatchers-”

“Come here, let me show you something,” Nikola cut her off, stepping over to his work desk to swipe an array of metal parts off a stack of papers. Gretel stood and joined him as he spread ten of the sheets out on the table and flicked on the lamp. It was a listing of time stamps arranged in rows of thirteen each, with matching dates and coordinates for every line. “Notice anything off about those numbers?”

“Looks like energy fluctuations in the power grid…not all of them were caused by our coils.”

“Exactly. Which means that somehow, somewhere, there is an anomaly the Dispatchers have been unable to catch.”

“And you think it will be drawn to my electrical energy, is that it?” She stared at him. The inventor sighed. “That’s all the more reason for me to be out there! I could help them destroy it.”

“It’s more likely you would get caught in the crossfire. It’s suicide, Gretel! I need you here.”

“We can’t just sit idly by anymore while these things wreak havoc on Viktorium. They’re getting stronger. You know that, right? Eventually, we’re going to have to ramp up weapons production.”

“It’s a fact I’ve hoped to avoid for some time. I refuse to be as reckless as Charles. Weapons production was his department of expertise, not mine. Although I suppose I’m not entirely averse to the idea of reconnaissance for now…I do have a few ideas as to where we might start. Not that I am by any means comfortable with you going out there.”

“And that would be?”

“Mayor La Cour, for one.” Tesla backed away from the table and began pacing again.

“That’s why wants his own phase unit…” Gretel thought aloud. “He doesn’t feel safe. Those timestamps correlate to his location as he moves. If you look at yesterday’s dates, he was strolling around Morcourt when the power flickered. My god, it all makes sense now! The increased security from last year, staggered public appearances, the main Dispatcher units drawn farther away from the Metropolies and as far down as the Barreau District…what frequency are the fluctuations?”

“705 Hertz.”

Gretel’s heart immediately sank. She had resigned last night not to speak a word to the old man about her chance encounter with that strange girl who called herself Marceau, and yet this was much too close for comfort. 705 Hertz was the same frequency she had zapped her young friend back to, and to know that girl was possibly the one causing these fluctuations gave Gretel an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Of course she would be the one going into the field, not Nikola.

Yet still, something rubbed her the wrong way about the possibility of hunting down Marceau. What would happen if they were to meet again? As it was, it didn’t seem as though the girl had hurt anyone. Harmless fluctuations were harmless fluctuations, and it wasn’t their job to keep track of the anomalies themselves. But Gretel understood the danger all the same; Constance Renou demanded monthly reports of any power flux that occurred on the Metropolies grid. If she were to discover that they were harboring knowledge of any not caused by Tesla’s experiments and did not inform her, they were screwed. The woman had already threatened them with eviction on several occasions, talking up her own scientists, whom she claimed were just as competent as Tesla himself. It didn’t help, either, that Renou owned the patents for every piece of Dispatcher technology. She could easily put an end to all their hard work in the blink of an eye.

Gretel felt torn between protecting a potential friend and protecting her mentor, whom she loved as a father figure. He had treated her better than her own parents ever had, and yet it seemed her own coming of age was driving a tangible rift between them. Tesla had grown naive and ever more reclusive since Charles’ exile, and so where danger lurked, she did her best to encourage him to step up. But the way she saw it, they did have two distinct advantages. For one, Marceau was not an anomaly, and therefore not an immediate threat. Off-chart fluctuations, though they certainly existed, were a rare occurrence at this juncture. And two, Constance Renou had no knowledge of the phase unit they had built for Mayor La Cour. There was still time to prepare for the worst possible scenario.

“So how do we proceed?” Gretel asked. “The unit it ready. I can tinker with it if need be, adjust the frequency to match.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Tesla shook his head. “We’re not going to give it to him. Not just yet, and certainly not with the welcome gala around the corner. This kind of technology is incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, especially with the possibility of the Outlanders having returned to the city. Do you understand why my concerns for you are twofold?”

“Noted,” the girl rolled her eyes. “But these problems are bigger than either of us. For better or worse, we’ve inherited them, just as the rest of this city has inherited the failures of Charles DuPont. Somebody’s got to keep watch over the innocent and hold those in power accountable. And who better than the two of us?”

“We’re not superheroes, my dear,” Tesla smirked.

“Well, you’re not. I’m not entirely sure I am either. Doesn’t mean we can’t help them whenever they do come along.”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

“I’m not sure,” Gretel shook her head. “Just a feeling, I suppose. I’ve got to collect my thoughts.” She got up from the chair and made her way across the lab back to the large steel door of her room.

“Don’t take too long,” Nikola called. “Storm will pass in about fifteen minutes. I’d like to charge the coils before then.”

“I know. I’m on it.”

Gretel twisted the wheel on the door to unlock it and stepped over the threshold, closing the hatch securely behind her. She turned on the light. The room was little more than a closet space with a bunk bed, a work table, and a few shelves for books, but she didn’t mind. She always did enjoy a bit more solitude than most. Moving for the bed, she knelt down and lifted up the end of her mattress to retrieve the burnt, shredded hunk of Dalishkova gauntlet that had adorned Marceau’s wrist the previous night.

For a while, she sat there with it on the floor, running her delicate fingers over the rough textures. Curious. There seemed to be a bit of power still emanating from it, though markedly faint. It was similar in nature to that which had come from the amulet she’d received from Ermina on the subway, though she did not sense this was an object intended for direct influence. It did, however, possess some type of electromagnetic charge. Gretel closed her eyes and allowed the power to surge through her in an attempt to amplify the resonant frequency. Much of the circuitry was fried, but she was able to charge it just enough. A loud metal clang startled her out of concentration, and the shock was so strong that it sent waves vibrating up her arms. She immediately dropped the device and looked down in awe.

She’d left a butter knife on her work table earlier that morning after eating a biscuit, and somehow it seemed to have flown several feet across the room and attached itself to the gauntlet. Gretel held the hunk of metal up to the light to get a closer look. She tried prying the knife off with all her might, yet it did not budge until she sent another surge of electricity through it to reverse the polarity. So that’s how you moved your sword so fast.

“Marceau, who are you?”

The lights flickered.

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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 9

The landscape was twisted and scorched, as if a flame had been pressed to the heart of a living thing and destroyed it long ago. Many of the more frail trees had fallen since his last attempt, and yet their branches extended upward, some as tall as the sky. His every footstep sunk into a thick layer of ash. Beneath that, the ground seemed almost to breathe. Vents of volcanic steam rose now and again in contractions like a charred, cancerous lung. Somewhere over the horizon, a gentle breeze blew, carrying the scent of a dead fire with it. Severo took as deep a breath as he could muster and ventured forth into the dark.

Thunder rumbled in the skies above as occasional lightning flickered through the clouds. It was a most accurate representation of Igor’s brain if ever there was one, and yet something seemed amiss. The prayer amulet…I left it with Edmond. During his previous attempts at diving into the mind of the young leader, Severo had grounded his psychic energy using the talisman as a safety net. Without proper extensive training—which he had not yet undergone, being that he was only an initiate—it was easy for the unskilled practitioner to get lost in the mind of the target, especially one so volatile as Igor. A shudder swept down Severo’s spine at the thought.

“Steady,” he whispered to himself. “Keep moving.” The knight plodded through a small section of underbrush just ahead and grabbed onto the hollow trunk of a fallen tree, using it as a guide to ascend to the top of the hill. The horizon above was bathed in a glow of orange ambient light, as if a forest fire were on its way to consume the remnants of the clearing below. His heartbeat quickened. Slow, steady breaths. If he did not stay mindful here, one of two things would happen; either he would grow so consumed with the perceived reality of Igor’s mind that he would get lost, or the psychic link would be forcibly broken. Neither scenario was ideal. The former could destroy Severo. The latter could destroy Igor.

As the young knight pressed on, he became aware of a series of flashes in the sky, followed by a whirling breeze. He had been told that storms were not an uncommon sight when melding with the mind of another. On the surface, they represented simple electrical activity within the brain, the firing of neurons and so forth. On a deeper level, however, they could also be indicative of a troubled or broken consciousness.

Severo proceeded with caution to the top of the hill. The scent of burning pine enveloped his nostrils. Ashes began to sink into the soles of his shoes as he struggled onward, determined to find the source of the fire. Something had drawn him to the top of the hill, though he could not explain what. Perhaps it was the deep yearning inside him to repair what he could of Igor’s fractured mind and render him at least somewhat susceptible to the possibility of psychic suggestion—or, at the very least, to force him into listening to reason. The knight fell forward as he reached the end of the hollow trunk and clawed the rest of his way on all fours to the top, grasping a tree root that jutted out for support. Hoisting himself upward, he was able to roll on his side over the edge of the hill and onto his back.

“Finally,” he breathed. For a moment, he stared up into the dark clouds and felt the rumble of thunder pass from the heavens and echo into the ground, displacing the thickened ash beneath his palms. The physical representation of Igor’s mind was a rather different sensation from being in Viktorium. One felt like home. The other felt like death and suffocation. To that end, Severo again attempted to slow his breaths. Being upwind from the fire was certainly no help; his oxygen could easily get cut off, though the faint sound of traffic from the Metropoliès that had just begun to reach his ears was of greater concern. His concentration was failing. I’m not about to break the link yet.

The boy closed his eyes and listened to his heartbeat—the only thing that remained constant between the two realms—and counted down from one hundred. Once the sounds of city traffic were no more, he stepped to his feet to dust himself off. A forest was burning hot as the desert sun in the valley below, its strength spurred on by continuous lightning strikes which plowed through the center. No animals appeared to flee from the scene, which was odd, considering he had been taught that every human’s mind possessed some symbolic part of themselves which fled any notion of destruction. But of course Igor’s mind was very different…wasn’t it?

A pocket opened in the clouds above, releasing a torrential downpour over the length of the valley. The fire appeared to calm, although the young Dalishkova Knight felt far from a sense of comfort. The rain drenched his black hair and suit, pouring over every inch of his soft pale skin, even as the steam from the dying fire gave way to warmth. There was something deeply unsettling about this place. He turned his gaze back to the dead clearing behind him, a circle of darkness encased by trees that stretched up as tall as the sky. Something in the ashen breeze told him he was being watched. He could make out no distinct figures in the haze, and yet he knew someone was there all the same. He could feel it in the tangled branches, the indentations in the bark, the deep crevices between…perhaps it was time to go back.

“What are you doing here?” a voice spoke beside him, clear as day through the haze.

No…              

“Who are you?” the knight replied fearfully.

“Never mind who I am.” The figure dispelled the thick smoke around them, revealing his slender, skeletal form. The man was more pale than Severo and stood at least a foot taller, with shoulder-length black hair and blue eyes that struck a shiver colder than ice down the spine of the young knight. A silver prayer amulet hung around his neck. “What are you doing here?” he repeated. His gaze was fixated not on Severo, but on the valley below them, as if he refused to acknowledge him by sight.

“Forgive me,” the boy knelt down, recognizing the man as his superior. “I have reason to believe I am failing the mission which I have sought to complete. Igor is a great challenge. I knew this when I accepted my assignment with the Outlanders. Lately it seems to be getting out of hand. I thought that by melding with his mind, I might repair things.”

“I see,” the man sighed. His gaze on the valley had not wavered. “So you believe that where we now stand is indeed a physical representation of Igor’s mind?”

“I’m sorry?” The knight balked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand-”

“Your prayer amulet,” the man cut him off. “You seem to have lost it.”

“I…” Severo felt around his neck and shuffled to the ground in a panic, checking all his pockets until he again remembered. I gave it to Edmond.

“Such travels are not an undertaking to be approached so carelessly,” the man said, turning to Severo with scorn. The boy’s eyes were wide with fear. “Do not worry. I will say nothing of this meeting to my superiors. However, you are to travel to Helias at your earliest convenience to meet with the High Council. There are certain…issues which need to be addressed concerning your assignment.”

Severo sighed and turned his gaze back to the valley. It looked more like a crater now, where an endless expanse of smoke stretched as far as the eye could see. And lost somewhere in that void were all the answers he sought. “They breached the Cavarice wall last night. Mayor La Cour’s welcome gala is in two weeks, and I’ve yet to discover their plans. I promise you I’m close. I just need more time.”

“Everyone does,” the man smirked. “Unfortunately, I am but a messenger. It is not in my power to grant you anything. However, I feel I must warn you that should you choose to repeatedly frequent this place—in particular, without the aid of your amulet—you may soon discover that time will be the least of your concerns. There is a reason the Dalishkova forbid knights below a certain rank from engaging in telepathic ventures. Of course…if you wish to be a part of the Order, the real Order, a good lad such as yourself would steer clear of such things. Wouldn’t you?”

“Is this some sort of test?” The young knight felt his heart begin to pound. “You’re not actually going to-”

“It’s getting late, Severo,” the man frowned. “You had best return.”

“What if I…hey, wait!”

But there were no more questions to be answered. Severo lunged forward in a frantic attempt to catch him, though it was no use. A veil of black smoke rose to encapsulate the man’s skeletal form. When it dissipated, he was gone. The knight looked reluctantly back to the forest tree line from whence he’d come. If this were indeed a test, he had surely failed, and yet he at least took comfort with the knowledge that the Dalishkova elders would not pursue him so long as he remained in Cavarice. Still, he could not help but feel as though he were being watched somehow. And that was exactly it. How? As far as he knew, this was an accurate physical representation of Igor’s mind. Psychic telepathy would have been impossible from so far a range as Helias, which could only mean one thing—either the Dark Order held stronger influence than he thought, or there was a chapter of Dalishkova based at a secret location somewhere in the capital city. Perhaps I am not safe at all.

Just before he could finish that thought, a thin object whizzed past his peripheral vision and embedded itself in the trunk of a tree several feet behind him. Severo rushed toward the charred black husk to see what it was, but before he could, another came sailing just over his head. He immediately dropped to the ashen ground and gazed up at the things sticking out of the bark. Arrows. Shit.

The pale boy crawled the rest of the way through the powdered ash and rolled over the top of the steep hill that led back to the clearing. He tumbled downward on the slope face first, bruising his arms, back, stomach, and chest in the process until he caught himself on a rock halfway along and flipped onto his feet. He almost lost his footing again, though kept steady by hanging onto the same hollow tree trunk he had used to ascend. A raspy voice shouted from the top of the hill as he reached the bottom.

“Who goes there!” the culprit shouted.

But Severo was too terrified to look back. The sound of whirling traffic and wind again greeted his ears, and this time, he did not fight it. It overtook him like a tidal wave from the Sea of Helene, enveloping every fiber of his consciousness until it was impossible to block out. Once at the clearing, he ventured a final glance back just an arrow came to strike him between the eyes. The young Dalishkova Knight woke up.

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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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