Night Of The Wolf – Part 22

The upper room was awash in the glow of dim candlelight. He stood at the end of the bed aside a circle of men in black robes whose faces he did not recognize, their expressions listless. Outside, a thunderstorm was raging and rain battered the windows. A blonde priestess at the head of the bed was reciting passages from a book of Dalishkova verses, while the middle-aged man next to Severo held up a sacrificial dagger. And there, naked and chained to the mattress writhing in agony, lay none other than Igor. He was covered in bleeding lacerations from head to toe. A prayer amulet dangled around his neck.

“Please make it stop,” the boy whimpered. “Please…no more…”

It was then that the young knight noticed the two figures on either side of him were women, holding up bowls of a steaming viscous white liquid which they then began to massage over his body to heal the wounds. Their touch had a paralytic effect on the boy, who ceased movement until the two men positioned aside the priestess brandished knives and started to slice more horizontal cuts into his tender arms. The process of torture was almost rhythmic in nature. At the beginning of each cadence uttered by the priestess, the women would massage him, and at the end, the young men would place another cut. It took several more moments of overhearing the verses before the knight at last realized what he was witnessing.

“An extraction rite!” he gasped. “I knew it.”

Severo recalled having read about the practice during his free time in the temple library. The ceremony in question was an ancient Dalishkova ritual designed to slowly release the living soul from its physical body without outright destroying either. It was forbidden by the Order. The purpose of such torture, which ran the gamut of all human senses and emotions—pleasure, pain, anger, sadness, fear, and every other—was to bring the subject into a state of such high euphoria that the soul would depart to Enverniam, and the physical incarnation left behind could then be manipulated in whatever manner was seen fit by the head priest or priestess. In effect, it turned the victim into a pawn.

During the first stage, the subject was isolated and deprived of food and most basic human necessities in order to evoke a feeling of powerlessness, thus purging them of all positive energy. The second stage was one of hope, offering the illusion of a way out. The subject was paired with a companion who would provide emotional support and offer stories of redemption and a desire of closeness. Such a bond was permitted to continue until affection was inevitably expressed between both parties.

The third stage was a return to isolation, this time adding methods of sensory deprivation. Light and sound were completely cut off or otherwise restricted to short periods. Fear and anger were also induced at that point. Sounds of screaming and crying were filtered into their cell. The subject would be told their companion was being punished for crimes they had committed. Naturally, they would want to save their newfound friend, and so would consent to undergo the punishment in their stead.

The fourth stage was the beginning of pain. It was simple at first. Sessions during which the body was cut and battered while limbs were bound were interspersed with short, rapid recovery periods offset by intensive healing remedies. At the end, they were reunited with their companion whilst remaining in isolation. Being that the cell was typically cold and the subjects were stripped of their clothes, they would cuddle up for warmth, often leading to sexual activity. The companion was removed the following day. Anger and hostility ensued.

Torture was resumed at the fifth stage with a marked increase in severity. Cuts and battering were more frequent, and bones were often broken. Sections of skin were excised. The subject was read healing verses and permitted to rest. Ritual sexual abuse was added into the mix at that point, with utterances of their fallen companion’s name to taunt them. Next came the amputation of lesser parts that the subject could survive without. Fingers, toes, ears…external genitalia.

In the final stage, the soul was fully extracted by way of death. The physical body, having been consistently repaired by the use of false flesh, could then survive on its own as a separate entity—highly prone to various levels of suggestion, depending on how much of their mind remained intact. But without the guiding force of a Sculptor, the flesh could in time turn parasitic, feeding on the brain of the host organism until they went insane and destroyed everything in their wake. Such documented situations had been a direct cause of the Flesh Wars.

Severo watched the sheer horrifying precision of the extraction rite up to its ultimate conclusion. Igor was continuously cut and bruised, then healed. The women massaging his body began to kiss him all over, after which the men would beat and taunt him. One of them sliced off a portion of his ear. His penis was amputated, releasing a gush of blood that squirted out onto the bed sheets. The inhuman screams that followed drowned out the priestess and echoed off the chamber walls, but she uttered her verses louder. All the while, the beating and slicing continued. Everyone in the group began to chant when she neared the final incantation. The two men nearest Severo then climbed up onto the mattress with their daggers at the ready. When the boy writhed in his last fatal cry, they plunged their ritual instruments deep into his heart, ending his life.

The young knight closed his eyes as the room fell deathly silent. He could bear no more. And yet the flickering candlelight did not cease. He had expected that by now, the shadow would be finished with him. But the gravity had not yet left his chest. No, he thought. A rush of panic surged through him as the momentary fear that he might be stuck in this vision forever took root. After all, as his superior had said, it was possible for a Dalishkova to get lost in such travels without the grounding influence of his prayer amulet. He took a deep breath and reconsidered the possibility he might be wrong. Perhaps there was more to see. Severo opened his eyes, but the room was empty. The light, however, came from the glow of a lantern. Then he heard a familiar voice behind him.

“Thought I might find you here.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 21

Nightfall had brought with it a warm, steady breeze that extended inward from the west. Severo stood in front of the abandoned building marked on the old Cavarice city map as ‘The Shelter of Motherly Light’, about four blocks east of the Barreau District. The map in question was not difficult to find—newspaper vending boxes on the surrounding blocks had not sold any new issues since 1915, so he’d broken into one and retrieved the back page. On paper, the shelter was listed as a Catholic reformatory, but prior to its conversion, it was run by the Dalishkova. Many of the old symbols still remained if one knew where to look. The most blatant was an image of the kneeling Salt God carved into a white marker stone just outside the front entrance, though most of his sword had been chipped away to resemble a crude cross.

“And yet Christians like to speak of desecration,” the knight sighed. He gazed above at the dilapidated structure before him. Oddly enough, an inscription of the dialect of Koine Greek spoken in Helias remained on the archway above the door, a phrase which most accurately translated to Her Mercy Hath Saved Us. But being that converting certain Helian words into modern English could get problematic, the word for ‘mercy’ was typically mistranslated by Cavarice scholars as ‘grace’, a definition that was far from its intended meaning. How fitting that they would bastardize the story of the sacred Oracle Helene to apply instead to the Virgin Mary.

Street lamps buzzed and flickered in the wind, giving off a dim electric glow that barely lit the entire length of the sidewalk on Rue De L’Abri, though cast an eerie light on the shelter walls. Severo surveyed the many large windows laid within the crumbling red brick. Numerous panes had been broken or shattered by rocks from vandals, while others were splattered over with black paint. Those that weren’t shuttered had been boarded up from the inside. The knight stepped toward the gated door, his footsteps crunching on broken glass. His heartbeat quickened. Much of the surrounding block was rife with similar abandoned structures, and the wind howled through them, as if to give a voice to the ghosts of the past.

“No turning back now,” he shivered. The gate creaked open at his touch, but the door was locked. No surprise there. Using the same method of concentration he had at the church, he closed his eyes and focused on the locks with every shred of his will until he heard the door blast open and slam against the inner wall, releasing a cloud of ashen debris onto the street. Severo coughed and cleared his throat. “I suppose I’ve got to work on that. Now…where are you?”

The knight continued on into the darkened building. Much of the front lobby was still intact, with a small desk at the center for admissions. Crumpled paperwork and broken ceiling tiles were strewn about the marble floor, while open leather suitcases packed with uniforms sat on an assortment of broken benches to the left side next to a fireplace. Stacks of bibles lay neatly on the end of the desk next to a tray of outgoing mail that had not been postmarked. To the right was a wooden staircase that angled square against the back wall, overlooking the lobby. Severo considered checking the file cabinet for old admissions records before proceeding, though it was safe to assume that anything from the Dalishkova years was lost in the purge. Besides, his psychic abilities could use some fine tuning. That much at least was best done alone. He dug into his pocket to check the silver watch he had managed to steal from one of the Outlanders.

“One hour,” he whispered, gazing back over the lobby. He moved for the stairs, stepping over a pile of discarded dolls that were missing eyes, and made his way across the landing up to the second floor. Strange, he thought. There seemed to be a greater confidence to his stride now. Any feelings of fear or doubt he had acquired before were markedly absent. Whether that had anything to do with ridding himself of the amulet, he could not be sure. Perhaps it was the time spent living amongst the Outlanders that had toughened his spirit, forced him to reconsider other possibilities for his life. Even on the night of the attack, Emilie and the group he’d overseen pointed out that he possessed natural leadership qualities. Up until that point, Severo had viewed his time with the gang as little more than a simple assignment, and yet…he had made friends.

That insufferable Emilie with her overly courageous spirit and terrible cooking, Olivier with his intricate artwork and timid demeanor, Quentin…the Outlander-turned-Barreau boy, his greatest confidante and friend in the group with whom he could share his secrets, and who had certainly not deserved the rotten turn of fate Igor dealt him. Severo had promised to save the boy. I promised…

“Let’s not get carried away,” the knight reminded himself as he continued through the doorway toward the second floor dorms and stopped. That’s when it came to him. A strong, sudden, undeniable feeling of gravity that tore into his soul like an anchor and pulled him forward. “Igor.” The sensation seemed to strengthen in the moment he uttered that name, tugging at his chest with a deep emotional power that begged to be set free. It was eager as a child and just as untamed, feral even. Perhaps the confidence in his stride was not confidence at all, but a force that possessed him in much the same way a demon would when it entered the faithless. Faith. Maybe that’s what this was all about. For without the amulet, without his book of prayers. how could he be certain he had any, that he would not lose his way?

“I am a Knight of the Order of Dalishkova,” he breathed as he continued into the abysmal dark. “My sword is my Oath. Salt God, protect me on my journey and raise me up with the Twelve Pillars, that I may ascend an instrument of your glory through rising tide and shivering storm…last room on the right, third floor…”

The knight dashed back through the open doorway and up the stairwell over the landing to the very top, stumbling as he went. That feeling. Something about that feeling was overwhelming, intoxicating. It engorged his veins until it screamed through his blood and set fire to his heart, just as the alcohol had done to his father on the night of the attack. The shadowy spectre of the past dragged him forth like a rabid horse over a canyon, and it would not allow him to rest until he beheld the truth with his own two eyes, even if he had to die himself to see it. Severo burst through the doorway to the third floor corridor, kept at the mercy of the spirit that held him.

He arrived at a door at the far end of the hall unlike any of the others he’d passed on the way. It was made of the same oak wood, though crudely reinforced with riveted steel plates. The knob was placed on the right, above which an assortment of six deadbolt locks were arranged in a row. He assumed the door was intentionally reversed so that it could be locked from the outside. A small sliver of pale light protruded from a horizontal crevice cut into the bottom, presumably for a plate of food to be slipped through. Whoever—or whatever—had once resided in room 301, they couldn’t have escaped easily, if ever they had. The young knight shuddered at the prospect. It was not the first such door he had seen of this nature.

Following his capture in Helias, he’d been placed in a similar holding cell beneath the Dalishkova temple for reeducation. For one month, there was no sunlight. Only the cold embrace of dolomite rock and cobwebs, and whatever skeletal remains were left behind in the former crypt. The chittering of rats, an occasional bowl of food, and a candle supplied with a book of prayers were all the sustenance provided. Whoever emerged from the First Trial with their wits about them was deemed worthy to participate in Mass, and thus continue on to the Second Trial. Severo had so far completed the first Five.

The knight closed his eyes and ran his slender hand over each the deadbolts, hearing them unlock in succession with the power of his mind. Nice and easy. At least he’d managed not to shatter them. His manner of focus this time bordered on quiet rage, which appeared to be a healthy medium where telekinesis was concerned. He made a mental note of it and turned the knob. The draft of stale air that greeted him was considerably less pungent than that of the main lobby, probably due to the hole already cut into the door. The sight, however, was most disturbing.

All of the curtains were drawn. A queen size bed was positioned dead center in the middle of the room with rusted iron shackles attached at the head and foot. The cuffs were small enough to fit around a child’s limbs. Water leaked down onto the mattress creating a puddle from several cracks worn into the ceiling, though that was likely a more recent development. The stains present on the torn sheets, however, were not. A dark yellow and brownish cloud of human waste was splattered over the bottom half. And mixed with that, blood. Lots of blood. Enough to prove beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that someone had died here.

“Igor,” Severo whispered. A pitch black cloud rose up from the sheets, followed by a sudden gravitational force that slammed the young knight in the chest so hard that he staggered backward from its sheer power. “Show me.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 20

Isaac lay restless in bed staring at the shadows on his ceiling cast by the slivers of ambient light pouring in from between his Venetian blinds. Somehow, the warm, soft body of the boy resting on top of him did little to dispel the darkness. He was tired of living in it. Between those shades stood everything he’d become accustomed to avoiding in life—that was, everything the light touched.

Where his Dispatcher duties were concerned, he was of course quite adept at throwing on a mask and joining the others in their pointless social banter regarding the opposite sex, and he could appear tough when required to. He’d had plenty of practice after all, considering his father’s abusive tendencies. His mother, naturally, went along with it up until their divorce, at which time his father grew weary of her newly progressive attitudes picked up from a women’s book club she had joined. But she still often berated her son.

Once Isaac became aware of the laws dictating Dispatcher behavior—that he was forbidden to engage in the debauchery of a homosexual lifestyle without facing judgment and harsh scrutiny—he realized all too late that he had exchanged one prison for another. It seemed a cruel twist of irony, then, that he had enrolled in the training programme for the specific purpose of escaping the clutches of his family. Still, he was provided his own flat from the deal, and thus, a private place in which he was somewhat free to be himself. So why was he still so terrified?

“Your heart’s beating fast,” the younger boy whispered, stroking his cheek.

“I know.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Too much,” Isaac smirked. He pulled his lover close and planted a gentle kiss the boy’s forehead as he stroked his dark brown hair. “Don’t worry about it.”

Tomas was fourteen, two years his junior, but far from naive. He’d first caught Isaac’s eye about a month prior while on patrol in the Barreau District. Edmond thought it best to do security sweeps around the canal and check up on the orphanage now and again, so Isaac always volunteered. If anything, it seemed a good excuse to lay eyes on that beautiful boy. He’d been stealing food from a corner convenience store when they’d first met, and that sly smile offset with sky blue eyes was all Isaac needed to look the other way. Both of them in that moment knew what the other desired.

When Isaac’s squad would split up to survey separate streets, Tomas would sneak out and pull him into a secluded alley where they’d have sex. At first, the young Dispatcher feared he might be taking some sort of advantage of the orphan boy, though it soon became abundantly clear who was in control. Tomas had far more sexual experience than him, and while he favored submission, he knew exactly what he wanted and could turn eerily dominant at times, tinkering with Isaac’s phase unit to use it in ways that made one blush.

But considering the recent attack on the city wall and General Rodin’s demand that security be increased surrounding the Barreau blocks, Isaac began to fear the very real possibility of getting caught. To that end, he had provided Tomas with his home address. It seemed to be a good solution at the time, although in retrospect, it had the potential to make things so much worse. Edmond was the only friend on the force he trusted enough to confide in regarding his activities. And while he was certain nothing would happen to Tomas—debauchery was overlooked among the lower classes of society—Isaac could go to prison for it if any of his fellow peers in the building found out.

“You really should relax more,” Tomas grinned, kissing Isaac’s tender neck.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Would you like to fuck me again?” The boy sat up, straddling his waist and started running his hands over the Dispatcher’s chest. “No? Not even if I nibble your ear?”

“Stop that!” Isaac giggled.

“Mmm, I have an idea,” the boy said, climbing off of him. He grabbed a silk bathrobe from the lounge chair and draped it over his slender, naked frame before lighting up a cigarette. “Turn over on your stomach.”

“What are you going to do?

“Just trust me.” Tomas handed him the cigarette and grabbed his phase unit from off the nightstand.

“You realize, sir, that you are breaking the law,” Issac said in his official voice. “I’m afraid I’ll have to take you down to the precinct for questioning.”

“Shut up and do as you’re told.”

“Fine,” the Dispatcher smiled, setting the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. He rolled over to face the wall and heard a slight electric snap as Tomas powered on the phase unit to its lowest setting.

“Don’t be scared, I’m not going to hurt you much.”

“That’s not what I’m scared of.” Isaac suddenly found himself whimpering and felt stupid for it. As a Dispatcher, he’d grown accustomed to setting his feelings aside because the job required it. But hiding in the narrow shadows between so many slivers of light had become exhausting.

“What’s wrong? Talk to me,” Tomas said with empathy in his voice. “Please.” He put down the phase unit and threw off the robe, crawling back into bed under the sheets. Isaac shifted onto his side and pulled the boy close to kiss him deeply. Tears were flooding his eyes.

“If I’d had a better choice, I would never have joined the Dispatchers. But it was the only thing I could think of to get away from my parents. And then I met you, and it was the warmest, brightest moment of my entire life. My job led me to you. I’ll never regret it. You have nothing to fear about being who you are,” he said, stroking Tomas’s cheek. “But for me, my career could be over. I’m just afraid of losing the only good thing I have left in this life.”

“Don’t talk like that. You’ll never get rid of me, I promise,” the boy smiled. He kissed Isaac as he climbed on top of him again, and the Dispatcher squeezed his buttocks. “Now fuck me again before I have to-”

They were interrupted by a loud bang as the door to Isaac’s flat suddenly burst wide open. A tall, dark-featured older man clad in a black suit stormed in with a squad of four Dispatchers, all of whom wore face masks and had their phase units drawn and ready to fire. Tomas shrieked and backed away behind Isaac, who pulled the covers up over them. The young Dispatcher shook with fear. His thudding heart dropped to his stomach. A wave of panic overtook him. Cold sweat followed. His erection died. This was it. It was finally happening. He didn’t know how, he didn’t know when they’d found out, but somehow they had. A thousand questions swarmed his mind. How long had they known? What was going to happen? He would go to prison for this tryst, he knew that much. But what about Tomas? No time to think. No time to act. The only thing either of them could do was lie there in shame with those thin sheets covering what little remained of their dignity. Isaac shut his eyes and prayed for the best. It was over.

“Well well, what have we here?” the tall man bellowed. “Seems we’ve caught the young lieutenant and his secret lover in the act of homosexual debauchery.”

“No please, you don’t understand!” Isaac cried. “This isn’t what it-”

“Looks like?” the devil laughed. “Oh, I think it’s pretty clear to the rest of us. Seize them, boys!”

“Leave him alone!” Tomas protested.

“No, please! You can’t! STOP!” Isaac shouted as two of the squad members forcibly dragged him from the mattress and shoved him to his knees. The other two pulled Tomas out by his arms as he tried to wrestle them away, until they dislocated his shoulder and stunned him with an electrical pulse. The boy screamed as one of them yanked him off the bed by his hair and threw him hard onto the floor at the end of the bed like a rag doll, where they held him down to cuff him. Isaac’s heart ripped in two as the teen’s helpless, muffled cries rose from the rug. “YOU BASTARDS, you’re hurting him! Don’t touch him! You hear me?! Don’t you TOUCH him!” Isaac struggled beneath the grasp of the two squad members placing him in shackles, but it was no use.

“You brought this on yourself with your sickness,” the older man spat. “As a Dispatcher, I am sure you’re well aware of the rules. Besides, what do you care for an Outlander?”

“What?!” the lieutenant shrieked. “He’s got proper documentation, he’s not…oh god…” He watched in horror as one of the Dispatchers holding down Tomas produced a small branding iron from his trench coat and began heating the end of it with his phase unit until it gave off a bright orange glow. “NO! PLEASE GOD NOOO!”

“Do shut him up,” the older man instructed Isaac’s captors.

The fallen Dispatcher felt a sharp pulse fire into the back of his neck, sending a shockwave of electricity surging throughout his body. Pain jolted in his chest and down to his stomach. He lurched over and vomited. Through the blurred vision of his tears, he watched helplessly as they turned Tomas over and pressed the hot iron hard into the boy’s chest. The Barreau teen’s screams were enough to make him pray for the boy’s death, after which he vomited again. Isaac closed his eyes, unable to watch anymore—not as if he had to. The squad members holding him in their talon-like clutches gagged him and placed a black hood over his head.

“Isaac, I’m sorry!” the battered boy sobbed. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have come here!”

“It’s not your fault!” Isaac cried. “Don’t you dare say that, it’s not your fault, okay?! Don’t you ever think that!”

“He’s lying. You’re nothing but a filthy faggot Outlander,” one of the Dispatchers spit on him. “He’s had plenty of boys before you. You are nothing to him.”

Isaac shuddered. He recognized that voice, though could not place it, but it was one he knew well. He’d heard it almost every day down at the precinct. As the symptoms of electric shock began to subside and his thoughts coalesced back to rationality, he searched for that elusive, familiar thing.

“I am!” Tomas cried, “I am nothing, I’m just a stupid filthy Outlander-”

“Antoine!” Isaac growled. A silence hung in the room following his utterance of that name, the name of a boy he had once called his friend. Over and over again, he played that sentence in his head, you are nothing, matching it with previous conversations recalled from the day. Soon enough, he wouldn’t have to wonder anymore. Agitated footsteps charged their way toward him and tore off the black hood without hesitation. The Dispatcher in question lowered his face mask. “You son of a bitch!”

“And what are you going to do about it, nancy boy?” The older teen struck him across the face. “You disgust me! I should have known from the way you looked at Tomas every time we showed up to Barreau for a shakedown.”

“Fuck you!”

“Oh, I bet you’d like to. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other boys in prison who I’m sure would love to have their way with a former Dispatcher,” he smirked. “Of course if you’d like to be an Outlander…we can arrange for that as well. You would never see this city again.”

“I HATE YOU!”

“Good!” the teen spat, choking Isaac as he held the hot brand close to his face. “Because with all the corruption we’re sniffing out, there’s about to be a new sheriff in town, and he won’t take kindly-”

“Enough,” the older man cut him off. “Justice first. Take the Barreau boy to the alley and cut him loose. We are finished here.”

“Who the hell are you?!” Isaac roared.

“The devil.”

The fallen Dispatcher again found his vision blacked out as the hood was replaced and the squad dragged him to his feet to lead him out. Please let them kill me, he thought. Please. For living in Cavarice—the so-called “City of Eternal Life”—now seemed a fate worse than death, and if this were to be a sign of the coming future, he would much rather rot than live in it. As it was, his only light had been taken from him. There seemed no way to fight his fate, and he knew no one would step to the plate in his defense. For better or worse, he would serve his time in whatever circle of Hell was fit for his supposed illness. He managed to whimper one final ‘I love you’ to Tomas before they shoved him out the door, but his voice was too shot. He doubted the boy even heard him.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any further questions?”

“What specifically did Benoit say to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But-”

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

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

“And the other?”

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

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

“Well let’s hear it!” Max demanded.

“Private affairs of a…certain nature.”

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Edmond nodded.

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

“Shut up.”

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

Max frowned. “You’re so charming.”

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

“Quentin,” Max corrected him.

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

“What?!”

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

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

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

“Thank you, I will,” Max breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Max smirked.

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

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

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

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

 

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I fuckin’ earned it last night!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stuffed the envelope in his jacket and stormed out.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just homesick.”

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

“Father would never let me return to Helias…”

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Edmond sighed.

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

“What bodies?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Taken? I thought she-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Edmond, really?” Isaac protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Understood,” the man nodded.

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“What do you think he’s doing?”

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

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

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

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

“Isaac, you ready?”

“Yes, just a moment,” the boy gagged.

“Forget it, I’ll take care of it.”

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 16

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

“Please, do come inside.”

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

“Are you ready?” the bishop said.

“Yes. Forgive me.”

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

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

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

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

“Creepy,” Severo muttered.

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“As do we all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps it was misfiled?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you know the one whom I seek.”

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

“Enverniam is not a difficult place to reach.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None of your concern.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

“It was just a theory-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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