Night Of The Wolf – Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But sir-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pontius?”

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

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

“Understood, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 5

Once all the yelling had stopped, the dust settled, and the air again grew quiet—save for the occasional whimper—the black market dealer’s boys were knelt in a semicircle behind him with knives held to their throats, pistols to back of their heads. Max didn’t dare poke his head out until he heard shuffling footsteps enter the room from afar, yet even then he stayed low. That’s when his heart sunk. He knew that sauntering gait well from his time in the villa yesterday. It was the stride of a boy small in stature with an ego a hundred times the size of his tiny body, a leader who caused chaos and bloodshed wherever he went. It was the stride of a thirteen year-old murderer with yellow, decaying teeth. It was the stride of a child who greeted everyone from allies to enemies with—

“Hello, chickens!” Igor. The scrappy leader of the Outlanders wiped his brow, taking a long whiff of the stale air that was only made more stale by his presence. “I love what you’ve done with the place since we left, Mordechai. Ah, smells like…old paint, sawdust, blood, and boy sweat. The latter two really aren’t much of a surprise,” he grinned. “You always did smell like a rapist, no offense. It’s a scent that just clings to you wherever you go. Not very flattering.”

“What the hell are you doing here?!” Mordechai hissed, cradling his arm the way mothers cradle their infants.

“Securing new investments,” Igor said, circling him. “But every now and then, I find myself taking a little stroll down memory lane just to keep me fresh.” He leaned in close and began rummaging through the man’s pockets until he found his metal cigarette case and a pack of matches. He removed one to light and tossed the container aside in a puddle. “You and I used to have so much fun before the exile, remember? Every night, cluck, cluck, cluck!” His voice broke as he chuckled and thrust his pelvis. “No? You don’t remember?”

“Not that I can recall.”

“Don’t be a stupid chicken, of course you do. You used to slither into my bed every night,” Igor laughed as he sauntered around the prostrate man, blowing smoke rings in the air. “Used to jam your filthy chicken up my arse,” he emphasized, shoving his little fist hard against Mordechai’s ass crack. The man scowled at him. “Ha! You used to play dumb with the other boys. Pretend you hated me or some shit. But you loved me, didn’t you? It’s all right. You can say it.” Igor’s expression darkened as he reached for the knife still stuck in the man’s arm and forcibly tore it out. Blood briefly squirted out from the wound, spraying the young Outlander’s face.

“GAAAHHH! AAHHHH FUCK!” Mordechai shouted, but he shut up quick as the boy yanked the back of his hair and pointed that knife blade in his face.

“Now if you don’t stay quiet, I’m going to have to cut out your pretty little tongue. I’m telling a story here, so you’d best shut up. Matter of fact, that was always your problem, you never could shut up until I stole your gang out from under you,” the boy said, ashing his cigarette over the man’s head. “Which I’m about to do again.”

Max shuddered and turned to Olivier, conflicted once again. Now that he realized the Outlanders had been here all this time, questions were flooding his mind as to what exactly was going on. Quentin hadn’t even been dead for twenty-four hours yet. Too many details of his departure remained to be discovered. The elder began to wonder if perhaps the Outlanders were more trustworthy than he’d previously given them credit for. Ruthless as their methods were, they didn’t seem to have killed anyone in Cavarice yet, beyond a few Dispatchers. And Igor had been willing to sacrifice enough of his own to breach the wall. Beyond exacting petty revenge, there had to be some greater purpose. New investments. Speaking of which, the elder had almost forgotten they still owed Igor parts from yesterday. Oh no…

“What’s going on?” Max whispered.

“Mordechai used to run a street gang that Igor joined once he got kicked out of Rothreau Orphanage in the northern districts,” Olivier explained as they watch his leader pacing around. “Igor made friends with Abigail, the only girl of the group, and Mordechai didn’t like it. He beat him and left him for dead. Abby went looking for him and-”

“I hear chickens squawking!” Igor turned to glare angrily at the two culprits. A hearty laugh escaped his lungs when his eyes fell on the young leader of the Barreau boys. “Well, well, Max Ferrier! Fancy seeing you here.”

A look of shock came over Mordechai’s face. “You know him?!”

“Of course I know him!” the Outlander chuckled. “Maxy and I do business together. How else do you think he gets his little talons on Dispatcher parts? But I see you do business with him too.” Igor sheathed his jagged knife back in the twine that served as his belt and stepped over to have a closer look at the elder and his companions. All but Olivier backed away as he blew smoke in their faces. If Max could have sunk through the wall to get away from that stench and menacing smile, he would have. “I see Olivier was gagged. What was the plan, eh, Ferrier? Were you going to sell him off to this leech?”

“Of course not-”

“Because he is a leech, you know!” Igor said loudly, turning back to Mordechai. “At least chickens know their place. But leeches, they suck. They suck and they suck, and they leave you all dry! Just like a corpse in the hot desert sun. Should have been you who got exiled, mate.”

“Shut the hell up!” Mordechai bellowed. “I took care of your ungrateful ass.”

“Yeah, until I became friends with your girl. Then you got rid of her too.”

“You leave Abigail out of this!”

“What did you ever do to Abby, anyway?”

“I sent her away,” Mordechai muttered. “Last I heard, she got picked up by a family.”

“Family, eh? No orphan who’s thrown to the curb in Viktorium gets picked up by anyone,” Igor laughed, tossing his cigarette down. “But lucky for the rest of your chickens here, I so happen to be in dire need of fresh recruits. We lost some good people at the wall.”

“You’re not touching my boys!” Mordechai roared.

“I’ll touch whatever I like and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, chicken,” the scrappy child grinned, thrusting a hand at the man’s crotch to give his genitals a tight squeeze. “Ah, memories…I could cut this off right now and cook it, you know. That’s the only way it’s going back down my throat. Or I could feed it to you right before I watch you die. What say you, Ferrier?” Igor asked, twirling his knife in anticipation. Max held his tongue.

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“You’re right, why waste time?” The boy took a step back and slashed hard through Mordechai’s tender neck, releasing a fountain of blood that spewed down the length of his body. Horrible gurgling sounds filled the air. The man’s eyes bulged and he lurched forward onto his knees, frantically grasping at the gaping wound as if pressure might stop it. He then slumped to his elbows and began crawling like an animal, aimless and still gagging out a crimson trail like a broken faucet until at last he lost consciousness and dropped over, dead. A chorus of gasps escaped Mordechai’s followers as he met his end.

Max’s heart was pounding. This was the second death he’d witnessed at the hands of the Outlanders. He glanced over at Camilo, who looked about to vomit. Aaron rocked passively back and forth to ward off the nausea while Matthieu took shallow, labored breaths. The elder’s eyes fell to the pile of blood-soaked money scattered about their cache of Dispatcher parts. For once, he hadn’t the faintest clue what to do. He felt too paralyzed to move. No one knew what was going to happen next.

“Well now that that’s over,” Igor sighed and knelt down to pick up the dead man’s whip. He cracked it out of curiosity, but came up short and snapped himself in the face. “Ouch!” he cried, tonguing his split lip. But a wide grin spread on his face at the taste of blood. He gazed back on his newest minions now with twisted pleasure. “Listen up, you ugly chickens! You’ve all got knives at your throats, yeah? So unless you want the floor in front of you painted red like your stupid snake of a comrade over there, this is how it’s going to be. You answer to me now, and only me. Not anyone I make deals with, not any of your fellow Outlanders. Fuck me over and I’ll kill you. Stay loyal, I take care of you. Any questions?”

“Do we have to fight?” asked the broken ten year-old huddled in a corner behind Max. The young elder had almost forgotten about him.

“Of course you have to fight, are you fucking stupid?” Igor laughed. “Probably why you got beat up in the first place. What use do I have for you? Matter of fact, what use do I have for any of you?” He turned back to face the rest of them with incredulity. “You’re all twelve or under, aside from two of you. I ought to put the lot of you out of your misery right now.” More gasps came from Mordechai’s former gang.

“You’re only thirteen, and Olivier is twelve,” Max pointed out.

“I didn’t ask for your input, Ferrier!” Igor hissed. “I decide what to do with my own gang. You can take your Dispatcher parts and the money along with that mess of a child and run back home to your cushy orphanage like you always do. This is my turf now. I don’t want you here.”

Max was aghast. “But we still owe you, you know. From yesterday. W-we could split the parts and the money, and you could have more than your eighty percent-”

“Forget it. I have a plan for conquering this city, and it doesn’t involve handouts. Don’t worry, I’ll take what I want from you in due time, chicken,” the leader grinned. “Now get the hell out so I can properly initiate my new boys.”

Max turned to Olivier, concerned at what Igor was planning. He felt strange showing genuine concern to the boy; after all, he had been an Outlander for some time and the elder had thought nothing of it. Still, they were in the city now, and it was unclear what tactics his leader had in mind, or how the Outlanders’ approach to survival would differ from desert life.

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Fine,” the boy assured him, resting his elbows on his knees. “Don’t worry, the rest of them will be fine too, but they’ll still have to fight. Prove their worth by going after a Dispatcher. We’ll all be there to help them though. It’s a game, really. We take care of our own.”

“And I thought you were second-in-command. What happened?”

“Igor demoted me to bait boy for putting up a fight over my cave drawings.”

“Cave drawings? Where’s there a cave?”

“Under the vill-….shit, you weren’t supposed to know that,” the boy sighed.

“It’s fine,” Max smirked. “I wondered how you all survived out there for so long.”

“Quentin helped us a lot.”

“Quentin?! What do you-”

“Later,” the boy cut him off. “You have to go.”

“Right,” the elder nodded. “By the way, sorry about earlier. You’re not a total piece of shit after all.”

Olivier beamed. Max and his group proceeded to gather up the blood-stained money and Dispatcher parts, shoving them back into the potato sacks as fast as they could. Once they were done, Matthieu and Aaron helped the beaten ten year-old to his feet and set each of his arms around their shoulders to carry him out. Max smirked. They would need that spare mattress Bernard suggested after all. By the time the five of them left the building, Igor was already sizing up his newest recruits and pairing them off into fighting teams. It was all rather strange and only left the elder with more questions than answers.

Who was Abigail? Was she Igor’s real motive for coming back to kill Mordechai? If so, why had he not done it before the exile? What were the ‘new investments’ he spoke of, if not Dispatcher parts? Wouldn’t he need them, along with Mordechai’s money to survive? It was difficult to follow the boy’s decisions. His mind was too fragmented, and that’s what made him dangerous. But for what it was worth, Max was beginning to feel he could at least trust the rest of the Outlanders. Their leader, not so much. If I could just rally them somehow, we’d have more than enough people to go against Lucien, if it ever comes to that. Of course he hoped it never would.

“So what did you make of all that?” Matthieu inquired, as they crossed the abandoned courtyard back to the street. “You would think he’d want the money at the very least.”

“I don’t know, but I get the feeling we’re in way over our heads.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bullshit!”

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

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

“He’s dead?!” Olivier gasped.

“That’s news to you?”

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

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

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

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

“Think this will help?” Aaron asked.

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

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

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

“Can you see anything?” Matthieu whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elder hesitated, despite the urgings of his group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night of the Wolf – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Bernard appeared confused.

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

“Think we should retrace our steps from yesterday?”

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

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

Max let out a chuckle.

“What’s funny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything else you need?”

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

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

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

“You’re the best.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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Night of the Wolf – Part 2

With the trio now complete, the group continued on across the room, making their way toward a secret door that stood behind a bookcase full of fake textbooks and glued-on beakers. The young woman pulled on a green title which read ‘Electrical Engineering’, and the shelving unit slid aside to the left. Once inside the closet, she palmed a button on the wall. The door behind them abruptly closed. It produced a bit more noise than she would have hoped.

“Shit,” she cringed. “No doubt they heard that.” She felt a slight tug at her right arm just above the phase unit and looked down. Lucien’s clone was cowering at her side in the dark.

“Mum, I’m scared!” the boy whimpered.

“Don’t be such a baby,” her first son elbowed him. “It’s hard to believe you actually share DNA with me.”

“You’re scared too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“Yes you are!”

“Boys, stop it!” their mother scolded.

“He’s just better at hiding it,” the clone said. “Fine. Not hard to understand why you wouldn’t be afraid. At least I wasn’t born several minutes ago. Fear makes me human. Why don’t you go running into the crossfire so the Dispatchers could get rid of you?”

Constance gasped. She had assured her only son that she could tell them apart, and yet just now, she swore that the one grasping for dear life at her arm was the clone. Then again, it wasn’t as if they were true identical twins. She’d been taught that in the childhood of twins, there was always an alpha and a beta. If there were to be a beta, she was certain the clone would be it. He should have been petrified of everything. Yet that’s when she realized the two were likely now afraid of two very different things—the clone of not belonging, and her son, that the clone would take his place. Neither of these fears would aid them in their escape. Even worse, it had the potential to hinder them. Why did I ever think this was a good idea?

But it was too late to turn back now. Constance said nothing, instead adjusting the phase unit on her wrist and straightening her dress. She was glad to have chosen something black with a shorter cut just above the knee that facilitated running. Unfortunately, the heels had to go. She stooped down to remove them next, surveying her twin sons along the way. After this, she powered on the phase unit a moment and paced around the boys, hoping to uncover any small detail in the dark which might give the clone away. Nothing.

“Mum…what are you doing?”

“Which one of you is the clone?” the woman asked bluntly. “Your places in the escape plan matter-”

“Why?” the boy cried. “If we’re both your identical sons, what does it matter who goes in the box and who comes out?”

Constance smirked. “I guess that settles it. You’re the clone, then.”

“How can you say that?!” the child snapped. “You said you’d be able to tell us apart, so since you can’t, what does it matter if I’m dead!”

“Darling, please-”

“You don’t care, don’t act like you ever did!”

“Lucien!”

But the boy had already shoved open the closet door and run off into the darkness of the gallery. His mother’s heart sunk to her stomach, giving way to instinct. No time to think now. The sound of Dispatcher boots rushing across the room drowned out all else. Constance steeled herself and shoved her remaining son behind her as she tore through the open doorway and fired off three pulses to distract the approaching squads. The last shot shattered the glass of a nearby display and caught Captain Karl square in the side. He went down screaming. The rest of the squad rushed to his aid, and Constance ducked low behind a golden suit of prototype armor with Lucien at her side.

“Now, remember what we planned,” she whispered. “You take the middle aisle up to the Liberté sculpture and switch places with your brother-”

“Mum, I’m not the clone, it’s suicide for me if we switch!” he cut her off.

“Are you bloody KIDDING ME right now?!” the woman snapped. “There’s no way this is going to work, you and I will not make it out alive if we stay together, that was the whole point of involving a clone!”

“Constance Renou!” a deep voice bellowed from the front of the gallery. Marco Corcini. “Oh yes. We know you are in here. I have waited a long time for this day. Five Earth years, to be exact, and yet it feels so much longer,” he chuckled, sauntering up the far aisle. Constance crept out from behind the armor suit, staying low against a row of glass tabletop display cases. She gestured for her son to move opposite her along the side of the aisle up until he reached the first gap, which led to the middle.

“Go!” she whispered, but Lucien wasn’t having it. He had knelt down with his back glued to a display, visibly shaking as a squad of Dispatchers crept along the middle aisle two meters away. Shit. Constance hadn’t seen or heard them over Corcini, so it was fortunate he had. The Defense Minister’s voice did have a way of worming itself into the brains of the vulnerable, a fact she’d almost forgotten, given his Dalishkova background.

“You can’t hide forever,” Marco sneered from across the way. Meanwhile, a series of quickened footsteps plodded along the opposite side of the gallery wall, prompting Dispatchers to fire pulses in their direction. When the noise of breaking glass and electricity stopped, Constance heard a snap of fingers farther down the middle aisle. The second squad appeared from around the corner and marched in their direction, kneeling to take aim.

“RUN!” Renou shrieked, shoving Lucien toward the center aisle and firing off several pulses. She managed to blast through the chest of one man, then the head of another. The blue glow of her phase unit illuminated blood splatter along the way as she charged on toward the entrance, stopping just short of the Liberté sculpture. She then ducked out of sight around a nearby display case and inched her way toward the bronze centerpiece. More Dispatchers were flooding the aisle from where she’d come, and the clone had since drawn another squad to the far side of the gallery. This had not been part of her original plan, but Constance soon realized the center aisle was now perhaps the safest place to be. She doubted this for a brief second until she saw Corcini’s staunch frame round the corner. Definitely the safest, she thought.

“Come now, Constance. You don’t honestly believe you can escape us, do you?” the man called out. “If you and your child would come quietly, I can ensure you will both live out the rest of your lives in peace on the Alabaster Coast.”

The woman bit her lip and drew her knees up to her chest, turning up the settings on her phase unit to the highest level. No way in hell. The ‘Alabaster Coast’ was nothing more than a fancy name for the Bay Asylum, where everyone with minor mental issues and other undesirables, to political enemies, to traitors, terrorists and assassins, all the way up to schizophrenic barbarians were kept under lock and key. And it most certainly was not a place of peace or safety, nor was it any place for a child. Sociopaths like Corcini, however, seemed to be permitted free reign in Viktorium.

Constance took a deep breath, her heart pounding, and peered around the corner of the display. She did not catch sight of any Dispatchers, however that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Marco often employed cloaker coats—elite teams of  special ops soldiers with cloaking devices—to flush out his enemies. In addition, she couldn’t make out much beyond the Liberté sculpture up ahead as it blocked the path, and even worse, she had yet to see Lucien…either of the Luciens. What if they’ve both been caught? she panicked. Somehow, she wondered if it even mattered anymore. Without her child, there was little left to fight for, and it seemed unlikely they would make it out of here alive. But I don’t know that for sure. Corcini would have announced it. Rising to her feet, Constance steeled herself again and stepped out into the center aisle. This was a stupid idea, but she figured as long as she could draw the soldiers her way, there’d be less of them to chase her sons.

“MARCO!” she shouted. Two cloaker coats immediately flashed into view on either side of the Liberté sculpture, prompting the angered mother to fire. Blinding blue bolts and static flew through the air, leaving trails in their wake. She blasted through the arm of the left one, but missed twice on the right due to recoil. The man returned fire. In the light of that pulse, the entire gallery seemed to come alive. Constance saw her life flash before her eyes. His shot would have taken her head clean off, had a pair of tiny arms not grabbed waist and shoved her to the floor behind a row of square cases. A loud sonic boom sounded as the spark extinguished further up the aisle, causing glass to explode everywhere. Of course. The phase units cloaker coats wore tended to have a shorter range for assassination purposes. Fortunately, the shock had only managed to crack the glass above Renou and her son. They were safe for now.

“Are you all right?” she whispered.

“Yeah…had to switch places with the clone-”

“LOOK OUT!”

A Dispatcher marched toward them from the far wall and fired. Constance caught the bolt in her palm and rose to her feet, firing it back at his leg. There was a bright splash of blood as the man’s kneecap exploded and he went down screaming. Keeping Lucien behind her, the angered mother ducked left around the corner, and again behind yet another row of display cases parallel with the Liberté sculpture. She lurched forward a moment to glance over the tabletop ahead of them. Another stupid idea, but it was best to reassess their chances of escape. The entrance was in sight, though guarded by a single squad of three, yet that hardly seemed protocol. And who knew how many cloaker coats there were skulking around the gallery.

Constance leaned back to check the settings on her phase unit again. She considered using the infrasound, but that was dangerous on one’s eardrums, and using the flame in the gallery was nothing short of suicide. Various banners and flags hung from the ceiling above, not to mention the curtains along the walls. Aside from that, if they were ever to return, she hoped to leave the house intact so they could live out the rest of their lives undisturbed. Yeah right. That might as well have been a fantasy. She wrapped a loving arm around Lucien a moment and listened. The room had grown eerily quiet. Then she heard the crunch of glass beneath a boot around the display case behind them.

“Shit!” she clenched her teeth, turning to whisper in her son’s ear. “You go left and run as fast as you can down the center aisle, I’ll stay close to the wall and cover you as we make a break for the entrance-”

“But Mum-”

“I love you, go, GO!”

The boy scrambled away, slipping over glass and rubble as Constance charged her phase unit and whirled around to fire at the Dispatcher behind her. She missed again, still not used to the recoil. He returned fire. She tried to dodge it by stepping aside, but the pulse caught her square in the left shoulder. She shrieked in pain and aimed at the only place she knew she couldn’t miss—the display table. A bright blast of electricity and static shattered the glass, sending shards flying up in the air. It gave her a chance to get away, at least.

Renou hopped over the next row of tables and ducked down, hearing a flurry of footsteps heading in her direction. Her entire body ached now, and she was certain the soles of her feet were cut up from plodding over broken glass. She poked her head out briefly to fire pulses again, trying to focus more on the Dispatchers guarding the entrance. If only her son could get away, that was all that mattered anymore. He was the future of Viktorium, after all. But she couldn’t see him in the center aisle anymore, and wondered if perhaps he’d taken a roundabout way. Staying low, Constance ducked back out over to the left and around another row of cases. That’s when Marco’s voice came again, stopping her dead in her tracks.

“Oh Constance!” the man shouted. “We have your son! You’d best give up now.”

The mother’s heart thudded deep in her chest.

“You’re bluffing!” she replied, remaining hidden. A lump was forming in her throat.

“Am I?” Corcini snarled. The crunch of broken glass and shuffling footsteps combined with the desperate gasps of a child had never been a louder sound in the cold dark of that gallery. Constance panicked. Either they had the clone or they had her real son, and all she could do was hope her plan would work, that they in fact had captured the clone and her real son was hiding somewhere safe in the shadows. But there was no way to know for sure. Not really, and being that she had also bonded with the clone, the loss of either one would prove devastating in so many ways. The only thought which lent her any comfort now was that they’d only managed to apprehend one of the two. We still have a chance. And still, she had to pretend as if this were her only son. That cut their chances of escape in half. Unless the clone had already been destroyed. The Helias Flesh was not known for being particularly stable, and she still could not be sure if they’d chosen the correct vial. Shit.

“You leave him alone!” she shrieked, rising into the open and tearing the phase unit off her bony wrist. The heavy thing fell to the floor with a thud. Two Dispatchers were holding tight to Lucien, who struggled and squirmed under their grasp until one of them held a knife up to his throat. The other switched on his phase unit to illuminate the boy’s face as they dragged him out into the center aisle near the sculpture. Constance rushed over the join them, but soon found herself in the custody of cloaker coats as they flashed into visibility ahead of her and took her by the arms. Suddenly, her movements weren’t her own anymore, and she struggled to escape.

“Unhand me, you fools! I’ll have you all demoted, no, worse! I’ll have you dispatched and deported, that’s a promise-”

“Do shut up,” Marco Corcini cut her off. They shoved her to her knees in front of him. All the mother could do now was look upon the terrified face of her child as he stood beneath the blue glow of phase units, powerless to save either one of them. She should have listened to Charles from the very beginning, but still, Charles should have listened to her before appointing this madman as minister of defense. A madman who belonged in the Alabaster Bay Asylum himself.

“What the bloody hell do you want from us?!” Constance yelled. The menacing man grinned, and the scars that covered his dark, aging face turned to daggers. His lower lip was turned downward in a permanent snarl reminiscent of a rabid dog. One had to wonder if he was just as insane.

“You know what I want,” he replied. “I’m looking for your husband. You and your son are no doubt a catch in the same web, however Charles was first on my list. If you would be good enough to give yourselves up now and reveal his location, I will-”

“Fuck off!” the woman spat.

“I believe I’m being more than generous in my offer,” Corcini bellowed, brushing a hand over her son’s hair.

“Don’t you dare touch-”

“Ah ah,” the man snapped his fingers. One of the Dispatchers holding onto Constance charged his phase unit and zapped her. The sudden shock jolted through her nervous system and caused her to vomit. Marco smirked and knelt down to look her in the eye, removing a small handkerchief from his pocket. She struggled to turn away as he proceeded to wipe her chin, though she gave in. “You know…royal families have been executed in coup d’états for centuries. You and your son could live out a decent life.”

“I’d rather choose exile than the asylum!”

“You would be living in the warden’s quarters, naturally,” the man sighed. “Admittedly not as luxurious a place as this, but,” he glanced around at the tapestries on the walls, “I would allow you to keep your lovely drapes.”

“You son of a bitch!”

“Ah, strike two,” the man snapped his fingers again, and a stronger jolt shot through Renou’s body. She dry heaved as a feeling of extreme dizziness and nausea overcame her. The outline of Marco’s figure began to grow blurry in the dark, and her nose started running. She looked down a moment at the illuminated marble floor beneath the glow of the phase units and her heart jumped. It was blood.

“Let my mother go, you can have me!” Lucien cried. “Please, please just take me!”

“No,” Constance whimpered in defeat.

“No? Ah, but I do think the boy has a rather splendid idea,” Marco sneered. “I have no children, after all. I have often wondered, if I were to have an heir of my own in this broken world which you are so adamant on saving-”

“Not over my dead BODY!” the woman shouted.

“Fine, it’s not as if you respect death anyway. Strike three.” Corcini snapped his fingers again, and the Dispatcher holding the knife to Lucien’s throat slashed his jugular. The boy’s blue eyes immediately went wide with horror, paling as he looked on his mother for the last time in shock. Blood squirted out like a fountain from his tiny neck, drenching the black and white floor and staining the crunched glass beneath the boots of the cloaker coats. His body convulsed in the throes of death like a wild animal, and still the Dispatchers held him steady so Constance was forced to stare at the entire spectacle until it had ended.

She felt like vomiting again. A series of audible gasps escaped her throat as she fought her captors to release her arm so she could cover her mouth, but they wouldn’t have it. The lump in her throat from earlier suddenly burst forth in raw emotion, and she cried. Sobbed. Wailed. She cried so hard, she feared the sound of her own voice might turn her deaf. And she prayed Corcini would silence her. Her stomach wretched, her heart sunk. If she could have exploded in a blast of electric light into sheer nothingness like those people who had entered the Viktoria I machine, she would have. Who was a clone, who wasn’t, none of it mattered anymore. They had just murdered her son, and that feeling was real.

Finally, Marco grabbed her by the neck and squeezed tight. Yes, do it. I have nothing left to live for now anyway, and I was foolish to believe I could escape. Give me the sweet embrace of death, that I might join my son.

“Now that I have your full attention…I’m not going to ask again,” the man said coldly.

“You bastard, are you insane?!” Constance chuckled in disbelief. “You’ve just lost your only leverage, and me, my only son. Why don’t you go ahead and snap my neck?”

“I’m sure I could,” the man reasoned. “But then I would be depriving you of the most beautiful feeling you could ever have. Indeed, it may very well be the only thing you can feel after tonight.”

“And what’s that?”

“Revenge, Miss Renou. Because I know Charles has slighted you, as he has done to us all. The way I see things, you and your child are just as much a victim as everyone else who has crossed over to this world, placing their misguided faith in the idea of a better future under DuPont. But I know you are smarter than that, which is why I am willing to allow you to stay here in Viktorium, provided you meet certain requirements.”

“Funny,” Constance rolled her eyes, “I thought you were speaking of revenge against you.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence.” Corcini narrowed his gaze. “You have acquired stock in various companies as a result of your association with Charles, yes? Zuviban Clockworks, LaFout Taylors, Courges Print & Press, Montcherie’s Clothing & Textiles…even access to DuPont Airships & Co. At least three of these are front organizations funneling funds into certain secret accounts in Helias. Accounts which, oddly enough, belong to several leading Radical Party members based in Cavarice who do substantial amounts of work on election campaigns. Need I go on, Madam President? If that is indeed the title you prefer.”

“I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about.”

“You want your husband gone, and so do we,” Marco explained. “And the world we both come from is not so kind to the prospect of women gaining power. Here in Viktorium, however, anything is possible. That is why I would actually prefer you to remain here.”

“So why murder my son?”

“Because without an heir, you have no legitimate claim to this world, and neither does DuPont. Really, I am allowing you to live out the rest of your life as you wish, albeit as a glorified figurehead. It’s the best you can hope for, really, before your departure to the Reapers. As I said, I believe I’m being rather gracious. Still, I could kill you right now and there would be no happiness for you before you ultimately walk the Dark Realm. No before, and no ever after. No revenge against Charles-”

“Fine,” Constance cut him off. “He’s on the Dantua Road heading east for the Aussonne Mountains. There is an underground enclosure high in the hilltops close to the summit of Mount Verlaine. That’s as much as I know. I assume you can find him there.”

“Thank you for your cooperation, Miss Renou,” Marco said. “Although I believe it may be wiser to wait a few years…perhaps to restore faith in the people.” Corcini paced over to a large green and black flag, sewn by Constance herself, and held it out. The bottom, being solid green, represented the Earth plane, and the black above, the night sky. Crossed with diagonal green stripes and yellow stars, it was the first created to represent the frequency of Viktorium. “This was once our dream, was it not? A dream that would sooner break without Charles’ influence.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Revolution, of course,” Corcini smiled. “The same manner in which the greatest empires of the world have been built. We can let them have their day. Let them believe it’s their doing, not ours. We founded this place, after all.”

“Charles founded this place,” Constance reminded him.

“Don’t tell me you feel sympathy for the old man already. Besides, you and I both know that’s not true.”

“So say we wait until 1915,” she continued. “Then what? You’re going to kill me?”

“You’ll have to stand trial, of course. Proclaim your hard-fought innocence. Then you’ll have your reign of power as president. I can’t promise I won’t cut it short. I do answer to the Dalishkova Council, after all, and they have their own ideas for governance. What I can promise you is that Charles will be gone, and the people will be inspired by your example. Again…it’s the best you can hope for.”

“You’re so gracious!” Constance mocked him. “Now if you are finished, get the fuck out of my house.”

“As you wish. Men!” he called to the remaining squads, “I think our work is done finished here. Bring the injured out to the forest and we’ll commence treatment. Goodnight, Miss Renou. Oh, and I’ll be in touch regarding which blocks are to be shut down first by the Zoning Commission. I will extend your stay as much as possible, however there are those in our organization who would much rather see Viktorium eradicated altogether, so I think it best to keep up appearances for now…make them believe we are complying while keeping the new arrivals satiated.”

“I see. And will you comply with the Dalishkova Council, then?”

“I have no intention of doing any such thing.”

“I didn’t think you would. Goodnight, Minister.”

The man said nothing more as he rounded up the remaining squads. They marched out without a word, leaving Constance Renou broken and alone in the darkness of the gallery. The ambient light from the gas lamps out in the hallway provided little illumination with which to see, so she scrambled over to grab the phase unit she’d previously discarded. Kneeling back at the sculpture over the body of her deceased son, she switched it on and set it on the floor. For the longest time, she sat there thinking on her sins, and all the many lies and cons which had brought her to this point. She looked around her at the shattered room, at the flags she had sewn, the many destroyed inventions of Charles put on display. And she looked too at Lucien, her only son, a pure, sweet, and innocent child born from the very worst of her transgressions.

The room was quiet now, too quiet, save for the flickering electric hum of the phase unit. But unlike a fire, it didn’t provide any warmth. Nothing did anymore. There was no one to comfort her, and no one to protect. Marco would be coming for Charles now, probably to enslave him until such time a public spectacle could be made over his exile. They were completely finished as a royal family in Viktorium. For better or worse, it seemed the Dalishkova had already won.

Constance began to cry. And yet for what specific reason, she did not know. Was it loss? And if so, loss of what? Pride? Sanity? Her child? After all, she was getting exactly what she wanted; guaranteed reign of power in Viktorium for a time, during which she could extend her influence as much as possible and hopefully turn the people against the Dalishkova. And yet not even that much was guaranteed. Who knew when her reign as president would end, after all? She still had to provide for her son, and…my son…

She stroked the dead child’s golden hair, the same color as her own, and sobbed quietly. Sobbed so hard, she felt her chest tighten and her stomach contract. Her heart was breaking. He was everything she had ever wanted, and up until now, everything she had done was for him. The money from Zuviban Clockworks was being siphoned into a private offshore account for him, so that when he came of age, he could attend a school or start his own business, whatever his fancy desired. Charles provided for both of them of course, but the truth was that she had never wanted to rely on the man. DuPont was nothing more than a greedy narcissist, and she had to get away from him.

Becoming the first female president, or hell, even mayor would have left her with more than enough to provide for Lucien on her own. Yet the sad truth was that she needed DuPont out of the picture. She needed men like Marco Corcini to help, at least for now. If that was the only way to safely remain in Viktorium, so be it. She may not win against the Dalishkova in the end, but she certainly was not about to go down without a fight. But now that he had taken her only son, what did she have left to fight for? She could feel the power, the well-bred strength and resolve of her mother’s genes draining away with every flicker of the phase unit.

And she cried because she felt so powerless here, alone, in the dark, with only the sounds of electricity and her own sobs, and the crunch of glass as footsteps approached from behind…

Constance didn’t think. She had nothing left to protect, and yet she’d be damned if one of those Dispatchers or even Corcini was about to disturb her peace by barging in on her as she mourned the death of her only son. In one swift movement, she snatched the phase unit in front of her and whirled around on her back to take aim at the intruder.

“Mum?” a golden-haired, blue-eyed boy asked. “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

“Oh my god!” the mother exclaimed, dropping the phase unit and scrambling on her knees to embrace him. Broken glass scraped across her legs creating fresh cuts and wounds, leaving glittering shards in their wake, but she didn’t care. Her son was all that mattered. All that ever mattered. “Lucien, you’re alive!” she cried. “You’re alive, my sweet boy, I never doubted you for a second! It must have been the clone, my plan worked, they only killed the clone! Oh darling, it was the clone!”

Her spirit was renewed. An intense joy had welled up inside her again, and with it, an even better plan. Now, she knew she could win against the Dalishkova. Marco would never see it coming. As long as Lucien was alive, there was hope. But something began to seem off as Constance knelt in the rubble of the gallery, holding fast onto him. His body seemed to turn cold as a clam under her touch, and he shook with what seemed like fear. As Renou pulled back and took his hands, it looked as if he were sweating profusely.

“Mum…where did the rest of me go?”

“The rest of you?” the mother worried, holding a hand to his forehead to see if it was a fever. He was ice cold. “Darling, you’re here…you’re right here, and I’m so glad you are.” She stroked his face and went to wipe away his tears, only to discover they’d frozen onto his cheek. Curious, she chipped off the end of it with her fingernail. It broke off into her palm. “Lucien,” she panicked, “what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I closed my eyes and he wasn’t there anymore…I wonder if that’s why I’m sad.”

“Who? Who wasn’t there?”

“My brother,” the boy whimpered.

“Forget it darling, you don’t have a brother, it was probably just a bad dream,” Constance deflected. “I’m here for you now, all right? I promise. Mama’s here for you now.”

It was at this point that she realized she had been holding the clone in her arms all this time. Tears certainly didn’t freeze on a normal human face. She worried, though, if he would turn out to be okay, or if he would self-destruct at any point. It was a possibility. His skin was so cold, but after a long time of holding him, his temperature seemed to come up just fine on its own. Still, no one knew as much about the Helias Flesh as Charles, and yet after tonight, there was no way she could ask; Marco would no doubt inform DuPont of the boy’s death.

Constance would have to be vigilant. She would have to hide him somewhere, before the whole of Viktorium found out. Because for better or worse now, this clone was her son, or at least what was left of him. And if anything happened to her or Charles, the future of the afterlife would be in his hands.

Those ice cold, false-fleshed hands…

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Night of the Wolf – Part 1

DuPont Mansion, Sereinnes Province, Viktorium
August 6th, 1910, 12:02 AM

 Constance Renou slammed her dresser drawer shut and finished strapping the phase unit tight onto her delicate wrist. She had cut the power to the rest of the house, so she hoped her plan would work. Far across the moonlit darkness of her bedroom, the radio crackled with the ominous voice of Marco Corcini, Viktorium’s Minister of Defense. The knife-like coldness with which he spoke had been enough to shake the skin from her bones ever since the day her husband made the mistake of appointing him. Of course, she had warned Charles about the crazed Italian on numerous occasions. He was never one to listen. Now, both of them were being hunted down like animals by their own private Dispatcher squads.

“You stupid egotistical bastard,” she huffed.   

“This world was never ours to colonize,” Corcini bellowed from the radio speaker. “Human arrogance did this. The very same human arrogance which will destroy Viktorium itself. The idea that one may overcome death simply by locking our souls in this perpetual Purgatory is foolish. This land is as unstable as the mind of the man who put the locks on our door. CHARLES DUPONT!” He spat into the microphone, sending an eerie ring screeching throughout the shadows. Constance knelt down beneath her desk, startled.

“Go on, say my name too you son of a bitch, I dare you-”

“And lest we forget his filthy whore courtesan, Ms. Constance Renou and her pornographic stage acts!”

“Ah, there it is,” she grinned. “Perhaps you’d like to join me when I make an act out of emasculating you.” She switched on the phase unit. A blue bolt of electricity sparked from the emitter and danced in her palm. For a brief moment, the shadows fled to every corner of the room in a brilliant glow of luminescence. Renou dialed it off when a series of short beeps echoed near the open doorway—the holograph transmitter. “Shit!” she clenched her teeth. Of course. Charles always kept the transmitters active in case of an emergency.

The mansion was a structure hidden deep in the northernmost corner of Viktorium’s Carnelle Forest—not the easiest place to access if one was in need of outside help. For the life of her, Constance never understood why DuPont insisted on living so far from civilization. There were plenty of high-rise condominiums in the city devoted to luxury, where one need not deal with the twaddle of the masses below. How much more important could any of his future experiments be?

The discovery of Viktorium as an alternate dimension capable of human habitation by both living and dead souls alike was surely the greatest achievement in the history of modern man. With the aid of Nikola Tesla, they had seen to that together, and had come a long way since the Victoria I disaster in the village of Bezonvaux four years prior. Viktorium was indeed a utopian dream realized—although with Corcini’s men fast on their heels, it didn’t seem poised to last.

“Yes,” the man continued on the radio, amid the sequence of beeps still coming from the holograph transmitter. “We are hunting them down now as I speak. Their heads will be on display in Centre Square of the Metropolies before dawn. How far did you honestly believe you both could run? Under your rule, the ghost anomalies would have destroyed every last one of the living in this dimension anyway. That’s why you created the Dispatchers, wasn’t it? To purge this frequency for human habitation! How pathetic. Did you really think you could stand up to the wrath of the Dalishkova?”

“Damn it, Charles!” Constance fumed. “This really is not the time!” She scrambled out from under her desk and over to the transmitter on the wall. On the outside, it was little more than a thin wood and brass box with a dial on the side to adjust frequency. A glass pane was positioned atop it with an assortment of green lasers connected to power cells beneath, which projected a moving image in real time when holograph calls were received. The technology was still very much in its infancy, being one of the many inventions of Tesla, but it allowed callers on both ends to see whomever they were talking to. Constance took a deep breath and turned the dial until the beeps stopped and the glass pane lit up.

“Constance!” her husband’s voice broke through the static. The signal was weak, so the image kept scrambling between solid lines of light and tiny dots as his message distorted. “What the hell are you…? I told you to get…of there!”

“One moment,” the woman sighed, rushing across the room. Screeches of interference blared from the radio. She was about to turn it off when she noticed flashes of light out in the woods through the break in her curtains. A gasp caught in her throat as Corcini spoke his final words before she shut him off.

“By midnight tonight, we will have your mansion in the Carnelle Forest surrounded. Oh, did you think we’d be stupid enough to run this broadcast live? That we would give you fair warning enough to escape? My dear Charles, you’re always so obsessed with time. We will not afford you the luxury. At quarter after midnight, your precious wife and son will be one of us. You will bow, Charles. You will-”

“Fuck!” Renou snapped, cutting him off.

“Constance, you must leave!” DuPont shouted over the transmitter.

“I KNOW!” she yelled, shuffling back.

“What’s that on your wrist?”

“This would be a phase unit, darling.”

“You cannot fight them, it’s suicide!”

“Why not? I’m already surrounded! Besides, you taught me well,” she smirked. “I’ve got a good arm for it.” She gestured to her right, checking her aim.

“Careful with the recoil. Look, I was trying to warn you-”

“Well it’s a little bloody late for that!”

“I tried calling you an hour ago, what the devil were you doing? Don’t tell me you were cutting off the power…”

“Oops,” Constance sighed. “I thought it was best in case we hadn’t left yet. This place is like a lighthouse in the middle of the woods!”

“You know it resets the transmitters!” Charles shouted. “Whatever…meet us at the rendezvous point.” A loud bang came from downstairs, followed by hurried footsteps and several voices yelling. They had already broken through the door. The young woman’s heart sank to her stomach.

“Little late for that too, I’m afraid. Don’t worry darling, I’ll be sure to watch the recoil.”

“CONSTANCE!”

“Sorry, my love. See you in the next life if they want us there, yeah?” With that, she extended her arm and aimed her phase unit at the transmitter, firing a pulse that shattered the glass pane and fried the circuits. Smoke and sparks poured out from the small wooden box. Charles was no more.

“Mum, what’s happening?” a voice came from the doorway. It was Lucien. Their ten year-old son must have been awoken by the noise. Naturally, Charles for whatever reason hadn’t thought to take him. After all, Constance herself did much of the raising, so the child was always with her or the nanny. Probably slipped her husband’s mind. Still, he was the  future of Viktorium, if any such place would even exist after tonight. Constance dreaded to think of what it would be like to raise her child back on the Earth plane alone if Charles’ plan didn’t work out. Exile was the most terrifying prospect imaginable. All of their funds would be taken from them, their businesses liquidated, titles stripped. They’d be forced to walk the cobblestone streets of Paris as nothing more than beggars, or worse, if the boy were placed in some orphanage…

“Not tonight,” the woman breathed.

“What? Mum-”

“This way darling, quickly!” she grabbed him by the wrist, rushing him out through her private lounge room and over to a secret stairwell aside the fireplace. The spiral steps led down to Charles’ lab next to the Gallery of Machines—a hall devoted to his many inventions, all of which were placed in glass displays for private viewing by partygoers during gala events. If ever there were a greater monument to the man’s narcissism on this side of the afterlife, Constance didn’t know it. That said, however, perhaps such a maze did afford the perfect opportunity to distract Corcini’s men just long enough to make their escape. Renou had the perfect idea in mind.

“What’s going on? Mum!” the boy demanded.

“We’re going on a little vacation, sweetheart.”

“I’m not bloody five years old-”

“Marco’s squads are here!” she clenched her teeth. “Now shut up while I try to remember the code to your father’s lab.” The two hopped down to the wooden floor. All the while, Constance could hear muffled thumps and conversation vibrating through the walls above. The Dispatchers had made their way into her bedroom already. She swore she could pick out the particular voice timbre of a young boy she had recruited into her personal bodyguard squad just a month ago. Of course he knew every inch of the house, save for the secret passageways, thank goodness. None of the people who served the royal family were permitted to have knowledge of them in case a coup—like this one—should ever occur.

With so many thoughts flooding her mind, Constance struggled to remember the combination on the keypad. The indicator light remained red, flashing every time the numbers were wrong as if to taunt her. Meanwhile, Lucien had since broken free from her grasp and gazed upward along the wall, nervously pacing about.

“Mum…please hurry,” he urged.

“I know, darling. Why did your father have to make it ten bloody digits…any chance he ever taught you the code?”

“He never teaches me anything. I’m with you most of the time.”

“Thanks,” the young woman rolled her eyes. “But he’s brought you to his lab plenty of times late at night before when you couldn’t sleep, yeah?”

“That was over a year ago, before he had the keypad.”

“Lovely…3,3,2,9,7…” The door continued buzzing its denial. “Bloody hell!”

“Maybe it’s the same as the code for the gates on the Cavarice city walls.”

“Now that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” Constance scoffed. “Fine, we’ll do it your way. Come to think of it, your father’s not one to use separate pass codes when he can help it…4,8,1,5,1,6,2,3,4,2…” The light flashed green and the thick red steel door to the lab slid open in front of them. “Aha! We’re in!”

“Every Dispatcher knows that code,” the boy pointed out as they stepped over the threshold. “Not very safe.”

“Being that they’re already inside the house, we’re well past any safety measures. It’s time for a bit of offense.”

“Mum, there’s nothing in here that could help. What’s your plan? The phase unit? The recoil on that thing could break your little arm-”

“I’ll break your little arm if you don’t shut it!” Constance snapped. “They’ll be blocking the Gallery entrance. We need a diversion to lead them to a dead end so we can sneak past. Now where did he put that organic matter duplicator…”

She flipped the switch for the lights and gazed over the long, narrow room. One of the bulbs about halfway along the ceiling shorted out and broke. He must not have been here in some time. The place was a mess, full of crumpled papers tossed on the work tables, various metal pieces and wiring strewn about, frayed bits on the floor, screws and nails here or there. Brass tubing and clock parts took up an entire table. Charles’ lab was located at the back end of the Gallery, much smaller than his main workspace at the other end of the house. It was used mainly for storing simpler inventions and cleaning pieces for display, though there were some items he’d move here if he needed to have a closer look at them with a specialized microscope. The organic duplicator was one such piece.

DuPont had acquired a vial of the mysterious liquid from a street market in Helias several years earlier. The merchant insisted it was infused with some sort of mystical healing powers, a statement the scientist remained unconvinced of until the man took a knife to his own palm and poured a bit of the pearl white substance over the wound. Within seconds, the cut had vanished.

Later on, Tesla began tinkering with the liquid, zapping it with varying degrees of high voltage and infrasound. To both of their surprise, the organic matter soon began responding as if it were alive, absorbing skin cells and reconfiguring itself in the Petri dish. With the proper voltage, Tesla discovered it could form a full genetic copy of a living person—essentially, a clone. Of course more research needed to be done as far as stability, but for now, it was good enough for what Constance had in mind.

“Ah, here we are,” the woman grinned, stepping over to an assortment of corked glass vials in the far corner. “Now wait, which one is it?” At least six of the tubes were all labeled ‘Helias Flesh’, though it seemed some had been affected in various ways. One was slightly pink, the scribbled text followed by a plus sign. Another had a touch of gray, labeled with a minus. Two of the vials contained what appeared to be the original white formula, yet one was labeled with an X, the other with a Y. The others were solid green, and she thought the last was slightly yellow, but it was impossible to know for sure under the dim lighting.

All the while, the loud thumping of footsteps and murmurs on the floorboards above had grown louder. A sudden bang reverberated, followed by shouting. Constance jumped. The Dispatchers were tearing apart her room.

“WHERE THE HELL IS SHE?!” a voice yelled. “Check downstairs in the gallery!”

“Yes sir,” another answered sharply. There was that voice again. It was Karl, second-in-command of her personal squad.

“I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that snake, he probably sold us out,” the woman muttered, snatching the two vials of white matter and leaving the rest. “Do you know if your father keeps a vortex in here?”

“Seriously Mum,” Lucien sighed, taking the tubes from her hand, “I think you mean a centrifuge. You’ve lived together ten years, how do you not know the most basic instruments? It’s the spinner machine right here.” The boy uncovered a device on the work table about the size of a small radio with a hand crank on the side. An angled wheel on the top could fit up to six test vials. Below, it led to a spout and a tiny platform for beakers, and directly behind the spout at the back was a pulse emitter, similar to the ones used in phase units.

“That’s not like any centrifuge I’ve seen before.”

“Tesla built it for testing the white matter.”

“Great,” Constance sighed. “Any other helpful information you’d like to volunteer before they start breaking down the gallery walls?”

“That’s all I know, I swear.”

“Let’s see which one of these tubes is it.” She dragged over a nearby stool and placed the vials in the appropriate slots atop the centrifuge, giving them a few spins to note if the colors changed at all. Meanwhile, Lucien leaned his head over the work table to get a closer look.

“What does the organic matter do, anyway?”

“Well, according to your father, it heals wounds. Tesla discovered it does something more,” she squinted. “Back in the early days, Viktorium had a problem with stability due to matter density ratio. The souls of the dead were brought here because of a beacon they placed on top of the Eiffel Tower, but their mass wasn’t enough to keep the frequency stable. They needed something heavier to balance things out. Supposedly, they injected some people with organic matter disguised as a vaccine to ward off anomalies while Dispatchers hunted the rest. But that wasn’t quite enough either. That’s why-”

“CONSTANCE RENOU!” a voice shouted from behind the walls.

“Well what do you know…it’s formula X,” the woman smiled, noting that the vial labeled Y was now showing a purple substance bubbling up to the top. “Hand me a beaker from over there, will you?” She pointed to a shelf on the opposite wall. Lucien found the smallest one and placed it on the platform below the spout as his mother removed Y and turned the tube with X upside down in the slot. She then powered on the phase emitter. A light blue glow engulfed the dim darkness of the room.

“So what happens now?” her son asked.

“Now, get me the sharpest and cleanest nail you can find on this table. Unless you can find a needle, that would actually be better…”

“Dad wouldn’t keep needles in here. Mum,” the boy shuddered, picking a screw from out of a toolbox, “what are you planning?”

“Perfect.” The woman plucked it from his fingers and took her son by the wrist with an iron grip, forcing his hand down on the table with his palm upward.

“Ow, you’re hurting me!”

“Do you trust me?” She asked.

“Mum, please dont!” Lucien whimpered, clenching his teeth.

“You want to get out of this house alive, yeah?”

“Yes, but-”

“It’s just a drop of blood, hold still.” She jabbed him in the index finger with the sharp end of the screw.

“Ouch!”

“All done,” she assured him, tapping the metal on the side of the beaker to release the blood. She reached up with her other hand and slowly began to open the spout above, allowing the white substance to pour into the beaker. As it passed through the pulse of the emitter, it sparked slightly, and the white stream began to vibrate in tiny angles from left to right. Once the vial was empty, the pulse cut off by itself. Constance and her son exchanged bewildered glances in the dark before gazing with curiosity back at the liquid now pooling motionless in the beaker, turning itself pink throughout as it merged with the drop of Lucien’s blood. It gave off a faint bit of steam, but otherwise nothing.

“Is something supposed to happen?” the boy asked. A sudden crash sounded just outside the gallery walls.

“We know you’re in here!” Karl shouted.

Constance giggled nervously and stepped down from the stool, checking that the phase unit was still affixed tight enough to her fragile wrist. “Perhaps this was a stupid plan after all-”

There was a loud pop and they both jumped. The beaker had just exploded into a million glass pieces, sending the hot white liquid splattering all over the table, floor, and walls. Then the most curious thing began to happen. The steaming droplets slowly merged together whilst they dripped down the walls and glided back over the table in patterns approaching that of veins. As mother and son looked on in shock, they discovered that veins were exactly what the liquid was forming.

The puddle had since thickened and spread out wide over the wooden work table, and now it was bubbling up again. Droplets changed color from pink to purple, then seemed to jump through the air, as if weaving themselves into a physical body. Veins sprouted, and beneath them, bones. Cartilage. Muscle. It was then that Constance realized that the other five vials must have separated the forms; the yellow-white consisted of bones, the pink was blood, the purple, veins. Lord knew what the others were. This was definitely something else. For a moment, she had to wonder who the person in the other vials consisted of, but there was no time. More crashes and shouted threats could be heard out in the gallery as displays were knocked over, machines probably ruined. Constance only hoped the organic matter would finish itself soon enough. Poor Lucien seemed to be in more shock than she was.

“Mum…I don’t like it,” the boy swallowed, looking up at his mother as the organic matter began to take on his appearance. “What if it tries to kill us?”

“It’s not going to kill us, darling. And if it does, we’ll be long gone from here.” Another crash sounded beyond the wall. Renou closed her eyes. She’d always known Karl had anger issues. That was why she’d chosen him after all, though she never expected it would backfire in this way. He was completely unhinged. And with Corcini’s Dispatchers probably using cloaking devices—cloaker coats, they called them—it would not be easy to escape the maze of the gallery. She only hoped that Lucien’s clone could be more of an asset than a hindrance in that regard.

“What if you f-forget which one of us is me?” Lucien trembled.

“Oh darling, I could never!” Constance knelt to hug her son tight, kissing his forehead. “Now listen, all three of us are going through the secret passage there and into the closet,” she gestured to a bookcase at the end of the room. “Once there, I want you to run out as fast as you can across the end aisle while the clone takes the middle. I’ll fire pulses to distract the Dispatchers from you both and make my way toward the gallery entrance. You and I stay on opposite sides until we’ve reached-”

“No, I’m not leaving you!”

“Let me finish,” she insisted. “Halfway up to the entrance near the Liberté sculpture, both of you will switch places from across the room and I’ll move to the middle aisle. They’ll be looking for me first. While I’ve got the Dispatchers on my end preoccupied, it should give you enough time to sneak out the side of the gallery and through the dining room. You can hide in the pantry closet in the kitchen. By the time the Dispatchers catch the clone, you’ll be in the clear.”

“What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll think of something to divert them. You and I will run off into the woods and meet your father at the rendezvous, understood?”

“Yeah,” the boy gulped. “But…are you sure he didn’t hear you?” He gestured over to his clone, who now lay fully-formed and naked on the work table before them. What little remained of the white liquid that had birthed him had congealed into solid chunks before melting to cover his smooth form in a sheen that looked like sweat. The boy—or creature—appeared pale as death for several moments until a faint color of pink washed over his body. Slowly but surely, the thing opened its eyes.

Constance moved to stand in front of her new identical twin son to make certain she was the first living being he saw. She wondered if it would have Lucien’s memories at all. She certainly hoped so; he would make a poor decoy if he didn’t know everything her own son knew. And bad as it might turn out, she actually hoped he’d heard a bit of their conversation as well so she didn’t have to explain the plan to him twice.

A smile spread across the boy’s face when he saw her. Constance smiled back. It was the strangest thing. For deep down, she knew that this clone was not her son, and yet every bit of him that she so loved was still there. And for a moment she thought to herself that if there were to be a twin brother to Lucien, perhaps it was something she could live with. That’s what was odd, too. The motherly instinct to protect him was still there, and suddenly this clone was no longer so much an expendable decoy…he was her child. No, stop it, that makes no sense! she scolded herself. But it was too late. From the moment that child opened his eyes, she was taken all over again, just like the warm summer day ten years ago on which Lucien had been born.

“Mum?” the clone boy spoke softly. “What happened? I was standing right next to…” He trailed off, clearly in shock at the sight of the one from whom he had sprung. The original Lucien frowned and backed away. For several moments, the two eyed one another with suspicion and scorn. Constance, ever the peacemaker, struggled to find words.

“Now now,” she said after much hesitation, “both of you are-”

“Shut up,” her son cut her off.

“Mum?” The clone whimpered, seeming afraid. “Please tell him that-”

“She’s not your mother, so don’t you dare ever call her that!” Lucien snapped.

“I’m sorry…”

“And cover yourself up for god’s sake, you’re naked!” the child fumed, tearing off his pajama top and throwing it at his clone’s crotch. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Lucien,” Constance pleaded, but her son wouldn’t have it.

“Stay away from me, Mum. I’ll escape on my own.”

“You want to be angry at me, that’s fine!” the woman snapped. “But right now, there are only two ways out of this house. One is under my protection. The other is in Corcini’s custody, and I can’t guarantee that the latter option will leave you alive!”

Lucien stopped and glanced back at the clone, still skeptical. The noise out in the gallery had long since silenced, as had the footsteps and thumping from the ceiling above. There was no way to tell now whether the Dispatchers had given up, or if they would be waiting for them just outside the closet. A shudder swept over Constance at the thought. She shook her head and took the clone’s hand as her stomach twisted in knots. It was an involuntary reaction, and one that drew instant disdain from Lucien, but her pleading eyes seemed to do the trick. Her son sighed and gave her a curt nod.

“All right,” the woman acknowledged. “One last thing. You wouldn’t happen to have any other clothing lying around, would you? He could do with some pants.”

“Oh, I forgot! I slept here sometimes when Father was doing renovations upstairs last year because it was quieter,” Lucien said, shuffling over to a work table on the opposite side. He opened one of the lower drawers and produced an identical pair of blue-striped pajamas, throwing on the top for himself and handing the pants to his clone. Watching the second child hop off the table and stand next to his identical twin was at first an eerie sight. The two began to poke at each other’s faces out of curiosity until Constance knelt down and grasped their shoulders.

“Boys,” she whispered. “Are you both ready?”

“Yes Mum,” they replied in unison.

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Viktorium’s Inspiration: Metropolis, The World of 1920s France, & The Paris Exposition Universelle

With all the writing I’ve done for the Viktorium series, I thought it might be cool to take a little break out of my regular postings and focus on some visual references for everyone to better get an idea of what the world itself might look like. Admittedly, much of the idea and aesthetics behind it are in fact inspired by the 1927 German silent film, MetropolisAs an homage to this, I will be including a brief scene later on, perhaps in the Night of the Wolf segment, in which director Fritz Lang himself and his star, Brigitte Helm, pay a visit to Viktorium–this in turn becomes his inspiration for crafting the world of Metropolis, as Viktorium’s cityscape appears much the same.

As for the 1920s in Viktorium, I imagine the costumes of the characters looking perhaps slightly different, perhaps in some cases more advanced and reminiscent of 1930s or 40s-era clothing. I think it stands to reason that a society more technologically advanced would also have a wider variety of clothing options available, not to mention a fact I’ve yet to include in the series: Time itself moves a bit slower in Viktorium (otherwise, how else might an entire 2 or 3 cities, all of which are bustling metropolises, have been built within the time span of 10 or so years?)

Still, a general aura of 1920s-style influences persists in Viktorium in architecture, art, fashion, etc. New souls arriving from the Earth plane undoubtedly bring their adoration for such mediums with them into the afterlife, and so in a sense, particularly in formal functions, there is a type of “hearkening back” to the old ways, in the same sense that we appreciate vintage fashion, art, and architecture today. There is a timelessness about it which permeates all upcoming generations and influences many of their choices.

Anyway, without further adieu, here are a few visuals and such that I have either researched for Viktorium, or simply have a general appreciation for in regards to a world of the past I would most certainly time travel to, if afforded the opportunity 🙂

The Gallery of Machines, where Charles DuPont first met Tesla at the Exposition in 1889.

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This picture of a group of newsboys in 1908 gave me the idea for Max and the boys of Barreau Orphanage.

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The photography of Lewis Hines for the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 has actually been an unending source of inspiration for me. There is a certain aesthetic quality to it that I think really resonates with my own brand of steampunk style for the world of Viktorium. Plus I really dig the fact that Hines’ photography was a huge catalyst for social change, ultimately leading to the first child labor laws being enacted in the United States. Hines was pretty badass for that, and many of these photos are now iconic. 

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I collect a lot of public domain photography and artwork for use in book covers and other graphic design projects I do. I’ve collected quite a few paintings that have resonated with me as well, and those of Canaletto in particular have helped to inspire the look of the Barreau District (minus the boats and gondolas. The canal itself is also much more narrow, though could certainly be suited to the use of gondolas, if the Barreau block is ever renovated…we shall see!)

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The Colossus of Rhodes statue is a major inspiration for the port city of Helias and the statue of the Salt God.

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I think that’s about all I have for now. If I think of any others, I’ll definitely put them in a new post, or perhaps update this list. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little visual tour of what has most inspired me for this story, and perhaps in some ways it will inspire you as well!

House of Rats – Part 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Max…not now.”

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

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

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

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

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

The mark was present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 23

The young elder cautiously led what remained of his group out across the end of the Barreau block, mirroring the path he had taken roughly nine hours prior on his way to the old courthouse. It was difficult to fathom how much seemed to have changed since that morning. He had woken up to the familiar green sunrise around six o’clock as always, somewhat dreading the day ahead with the Outlanders, and yet he’d been confident. Confident because he knew his friends were looking out for him. Confident because he trusted them to always be there, that no matter what challenges the boys of Barreau Orphanage happened to face, they would emerge victorious because they were a family. Every piece mattered. And now that family was fracturing. Max prayed he had the necessary resolve to keep his group together.

They scurried through the thickening fog into the next alley, where an angled passage veered sharply to the right and ended at Rue de Charmont—the back way to the orphanage. Upon second thought, Max realized it was a bad idea. There was no way to tell if anyone was lurking just around the bend. A firefight there would mean suicide, as the path was far too narrow to accommodate more than one person at a time. They’d all be dead before any of them had the chance to turn around. It was the perfect place to spring a trap, if the Dispatchers thought that far ahead. Too late to turn back now. Walls of fog were beginning to rise around them, bringing with it the heated stench of garbage strewn throughout the alley that had been thrown from the flats above. Any light from distant streetlamps was snuffed out by the shadows as well. This place was a dead man’s walk.

“It stinks,” Bernard coughed. Several of the other boys groaned along with him.

“Hold your breath and stay back with the others a moment,” Max whispered. “I’ll check the corner up ahead to be sure the coast is clear. Don’t let anyone make a sound.”

“Mon Capitaine,” his friend nodded.

The elder’s heart began to pound as he tiptoed his way alone through the haze ahead, hyperaware of each step in the dark. Broken glass and rotten food lined much of the path. He was certain that worse things lurked in the shadows. Occasional squeaks could be heard echoing upward off the walls, and streaks of some kind of greenish residue had built up on the stone architecture in vein-like patterns traveling down from the rooftops. Feeling a gag reflex coming on from the stench, Max raised an arm to cough into his sleeve and nearly lost his footing.

“Shit!” he gasped, catching himself on the walls. They alley was next to impossible to navigate without light. At least the moon shining intermittently through the clouds provided a forgiving enough glow. He considered firing up a pulse on the phase unit, but thought better of it. If anyone is hiding around that corner, we’re done for. Then he noticed a range of subtle crawling movements beneath the fog and knelt down to get a closer look. The stream extended clear around the corner, as if the cobblestone path were slowly coming alive.

Rats. Hundreds of them.

“Oh…god,” the boy cringed. By now, his gagging had become uncontrollable, giving way to an intense nausea which tore through his stomach. There was no being quiet anymore. Max vomited and fell to his knees. He consulted the path ahead one more time to be certain he wasn’t hallucinating. Sure, he had seen rats around these parts before, but never so many in one particular alley. Where had they all come from? Not like it mattered anymore. A blinding blue light descended into the alley from directly above him, closing in fast.

“MAX, LOOK OUT!” Bernard screamed.

The elder immediately flipped the switch on the phase unit and flipped onto his back, crushing several rats beneath him as he caught the pulse in his palm. Impossible! He extinguished the bolt and gazed up to the rooftops. His eyes darted from one corner to the next as he lay there on the ground with a flood of questions consuming his young mind. Rats gnawed at his clothes and fingertips. Tiny claws scratched at his face. Max didn’t budge.  Then a light breeze blew down the narrow path from around the corner where the army of rats seemed to have been amassing. Little by little, the darkness fled as more blue pulses burned steady, illuminating the stone walls. A second breeze, too, drafted up from Barreau Street down the way. Strange. The elder could make out pulses, but no bodies attached to them…

“Cloaker coats!” he exclaimed. Bernard stepped over and helped him to his feet. Two special ops units of Dispatchers in gas masks surrounded them from both ends of the alley, flickering into visibility as they powered down their cloaking devices. “We’re not looking for any trouble, we’re just trying to get home!”

“It’s true,” Bernard said. “We live just up the block at Barreau-”

“We know,” one of the young men cut him off, removing his mask. “I’m Lieutenant Antoine. Apologies for the rat trap. It wasn’t meant for you. Although I do find it rather curious…if you boys aren’t looking for trouble, what’s the meaning of that?” He gestured to the phase unit on Max’s wrist. Shit.

“We found it.”

“Found it, eh? Where?”

“Uh, we-”

“Ten phase units had gone missing from our munitions storage down at the precinct hours before the wall was breached. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, now would you?”

“How could we!” Bernard snapped. “We’ve been holed up at the orphanage all day, you even came to visit if I recall!”

“And none of us has a Level One pass!” Max added.

“Well I’m sure you must know something, given that one of your associates is none other than Lucien Riviere, a boy who caused quite a lot of trouble for us this morning. I must say that his fascinating hostage story involving the Outlanders had more holes than the leaky roof I live under.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Max coughed, still trying to shake off the unbearable stench from the alley. A rage was building inside him now. “Lucien and I are no longer associates. And maybe if your boys Jacques and Alfred bothered to do a proper interrogation instead of going out with him for drinks at the pub, you’d still have your bloody phase units!”

Antoine sighed. “Unfortunately, we had no probable cause for detaining Lucien. You, however, are clearly in unauthorized possession of a stolen device reserved for Dispatcher use.” He grabbed Max by the arm and turned his wrist to get a look at the serial number. “Ah yes, unit 006374. Number eight on the list of the missing ten.”

“WHAT?!” Max exclaimed. “That’s not possible!”

“And that’s what they all say. I do apologize. We’ve had quite a long day, you understand. I simply can’t afford to take chances.” The lieutenant unstrapped the stolen unit, tearing it free from his arm, and signaled three of his men to begin apprehending the boys. A series of metal clicks echoed throughout the alley. Max winced in pain as the cuffs clamped down tight over his bony wrists. “Apparently I was wrong about the lot of you. Perhaps I didn’t misjudge when I set the trap. Perfect location, really.” The young man coughed and pulled the gas mask back over his head.

Max was aghast, but did as he was told. He leaned back against the stone wall in silence while the remainder of his Barreau boys were cuffed, dreading the inevitable march out of the alley to god-knows-where. None of it made sense. Sure, the unit was stolen, but if it was the same one Tomas always tinkered with, it was most certainly over a year old—not one of those Antoine claimed as missing. Still, it occurred to him to do another headcount. And of course, it seemed another from the group had gone missing. Florian, that bastard. Always loyal to Lucien.

The boys were led at a brisk pace back onto Barreau street and up the block toward the orphanage. For a few moments, Max remained hopeful that perhaps they were being escorted home and let off with a warning, though he wasn’t foolish enough to believe it. No. Antoine was next in the chain of command below the second lieutenant, which was Edmond Fache. And since Edmond was now the de facto squad leader in place of Captain Georges, Antoine was required to report back to him before pursuing any further course of action.

“I believe they’re taking us to the west gate,” Max whispered, quickening his stride to catch up with Bernard. Deeper questions, too, were beginning to take root in his mind.

“I gathered as much,” Bernard answered. “Any brilliant plan for getting us out of this?”

“They’ve got our phase unit, so no. Clever move by Lucien, leaving Florian behind to sabotage us.”

“You really think he had something to do with the ten stolen ones?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. How else do you explain the matching serial number? Lord only knows what Lucien was up to, getting drunk with that squad earlier. Besides, I thought you were keeping an eye on Florian!”

“Quiet!” one of the Dispatchers shoved Max along.

“I’d think you’d appreciate some of my insights when it may involve the men in your precinct!” the elder snapped.

“If you’re wise, you’ll save your banter for Commander Pontius,” Antoine said. “He enjoys a good story now and then. Especially of the fictional sort.”

Max grunted in frustration and turned back to Bernard. An idea had sprung to mind. He wasn’t so sure it was a good one, and there was no guarantee they would escape. Still, it provided a means of distraction until he could figure out their next move. Start a fight. Why not? It was all he had left. Besides, it seemed to have worked in the few movies he had seen.

“You know, of all the nights I’ve needed you to watch my back, this is probably the one time where I’ve needed it most.”

“I beg your pardon?” His second-in-command appeared genuinely insulted. “You saw how thick the fog was in that alley and how dark it was! You’d have lost Florian too. Don’t you dare pin this on me, Max!”

“Excuse me if I’m beginning to question everyone’s loyalties around here.” The young elder made eye contact with Bernard and winked.

“Well you’re certainly one to talk of loyalty, aren’t you?” the African nodded. “You’ve been driving this divide for weeks all by yourself.”

“Yeah? How you figure?”

“You hardly let Lucien lead when he’s proven himself more than capable. Shut down every decision he’s ever made, even when you know it’s better than yours. Like you said before, good leaders are willing to compromise. So what compromises have you made, Max Ferrier?”

“I’ve made more than my share!” The elder shoved him as far as he could, considering the cuffs. He hated to admit that although this was a bit of staged improv, the notion of compromise was still a mental trigger for him. He’d always been sensitive as to whether or not he did enough to take care of the boys, and if there were perhaps better alternatives he hadn’t considered. But that was where he and Lucien always traded off—the partnership worked because they each had different ways of leading. And who was he to say that his former friend was entirely wrong? Supposing the new arrangement worked out for the better, it was something he would have to grow to accept. Max didn’t like it.

“So have the rest of us!” Bernard shoved back. The group had just turned right into an alley a block away from the old DuPont Steamworks building. Max and his newest fellow elder exchanged a series of light punches, each taking care not to hurt the other while doing their best to disrupt Antoine’s team enough for the other boys to escape. Of course it was of little use; the so-called cloaker coat Dispatchers were well trained in riot containment. In seconds, the Barreau boys found themselves surrounded in a circle of pulsating blue light.

“I think that’s quite enough,” Antoine sneered. “Let me make myself perfectly clear. None of you are being let off easy tonight, and certainly not with Outlanders on the loose. Now if you’d be so kind as to save your shit for Pontius before I-”

“Why Pontius?” Max cut him off. If his immediate superior were not available, he would have understood why, but it made no sense. Edmond was acting captain of their precinct now. Pontius was a glorified figurehead. “Edmond is the one you answer to, correct?”

Antoine smiled in a way that made the young elder uncomfortable. “Let us just say that sneaky things have been afoot in our ranks for quite some time now. Nothing personal, of course. But someone must ensure that the order is preserved. Edmond has been corrupted, as have many others. Not to worry. They will be taught the error of their ways soon enough.”

“SIR!” a voice shouted from the other end of the alley, followed by hurried footsteps plodding their way up to the group. “Sir,” a lone Dispatcher panted. He hunched over a moment to catch his breath, appearing stunned at the display of phase units before him. “Whoa…bad timing?”

“What is it, Gabriel?”

“Pontius is down, and we could use your assistance clearing the other alleys.”

Antoine’s eyes narrowed. “What happened to Pontius?”

“We’re not sure, sir. He said something about heading for the subway. Claude’s squad found him passed out on the sidewalk near the church.”

“Let me guess. He’s been drinking again, hasn’t he?”

“It appears so, though not quite enough to be inebriated. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, blood coming out his ears. We don’t know what to make of it.”

“Wonderful.”

“Also, Lieutenant Edmond has requested that should you run into the Barreau boys, you’re to escort them safely to the west-”

“FINE!” Antoine snapped. “I’ve had enough of babysitting this lot anyway. Solomon,” he ordered one of his men, “would you please see to it that the Barreau boys are escorted over to our acting captain.” The scorn with which he emphasized those last words cut like a knife. He clearly couldn’t bear to speak the name of his superior. “Oh, and be sure to show him this,” he said, tossing over the confiscated phase unit.

“Yes sir,” the masked man saluted.

“Good luck with them. You’ll need it.” Antoine stormed off with Gabriel out the far end of the alley. Solomon kept the ranks well in formation around the Barreau boys, muttering something about keeping them protected. Of course Max knew it was all a ruse to be sure none of them attempted escape again. Still, it comforted him to know that they were at last being led back to Edmond. And while he did have a few choice words himself to share with the Dispatcher who’d been responsible for Quentin’s abuse, he did hope to at last get some answers about what happened that morning following Lucien’s reentry into the city.

As the boys came out onto the street and wound their way through the next alley, an odd sensation of static clung to the air. Far above them, damaged power lines strung across rooftops sparked and crackled in the rain, and with it, the streetlamps on the other side appeared to flicker ever so slightly. Max smirked. It was fast becoming more difficult to trust his own gut about things in this strange world. Things he thought he’d heard, things he saw, lies he was so sure could be uncovered—it was enough to drive one mad. Still, he liked to believe that perhaps there was a god left somewhere in this place, or that some benevolent being was watching over them. It was easier than trusting his friends, anyway.

The group passed a spiked iron fence on their right upon emerging from the alley. The jagged, narrow structure of the Catholic church loomed above more like a menacing dagger than a sanctuary of hope, and yet the diocese had offered many of the Barreau boys shelter upon their arrival. It was an odd sight to see on this side of the afterlife; priests taking confessions, nuns offering their services to the poor, Mass held as usual. This particular church had been boarded up some time ago for fear of vandalism before the Outlanders were exiled, though several more still left their doors open on the surrounding blocks.

Max glanced down the sidewalk as they passed the front yard and caught sight of Antoine and Gabriel knelt over a body. A team of Dispatchers further down appeared to be zipping several more into black cloth bags. The elder immediately grabbed Bernard’s shoulder and pointed at the spectacle.

“Hey, check it out! Holy shit, this is intense!” he exclaimed.

“And too close to home. Think that one’s Pontius?”

“Yeah, but he’s two blocks over. Why would he just run off and abandon the wall? He’s supposed to be there for defense until the gala, regardless of what happens.”

“Good question.”

“Keep moving, you’re not at the theatre!” Solomon commanded, prompting the other Dispatchers to shove them along across the street.

“And this one’s got a missing fuse,” Max muttered. “Sorry for getting us into all this.”

“You were leading us home, how were you supposed to know there were cloaker coats? Besides, the whole fight with Lucien and then Florian’s sabotage…perhaps it’s too early to say this, but what if Antoine could be our ally?”

“What!” Max laughed. “I hardly think so.”

“If the Dispatchers are being bribed, who do you suppose is behind it?”

“We’ve already been over this. It can’t be Lucien. He doesn’t have the resources-”

“Then we ought to find out who does, and figure out why they’re so desperate to pay off the Dispatchers. It’s obvious at this point that Lucien is involved somehow. Antoine said he wants to keep the order preserved. The more of them who are against Lucien, the better it is for us.”

“I’m sorry, do you want a war, Bernard? Because that’s how you start a war! Although Lucien seems to know which side he wants to be on, whatever that means.”

“I fear it’s already begun, my friend.”

Max smirked as they exited the final alley onto Rue D’Or, the street which ended at the west gate. “Come on, how much damage do you really think the Outlanders could have done with…oh…my god…”

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House of Rats – Part 22

Most of the Dispatchers had already scrambled out of the mess hall on Rue de Charlet a full half-hour prior to when the alarms began to sound. Max had heard the com units on their utility belts come alive with static and garbled chatter as the group of orphans neared the front of the line. The sound ripped a hole deep in his chest. Voices were shouting something about an attack on the west wall, and still Quentin had not returned. This was bad. What if the Dispatchers found him on the way? If the attack involved the Outlanders, forget his registration papers. All it would take was for them to see that O-shaped brand on his chest and he was done for.

For several minutes, Max had taken to pacing up and down the line to observe the sea of familiar faces who frequented the mess hall. He noted every discernible detail. Every visible article of clothing, even as they gazed at him with the rudest of expressions like he was some sort of madman. Bernard had placed a hand on his shoulder to console him amid the feelings of panic and terror that consumed. Perhaps Quentin just gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere. The Metropoliès was a big place after all, and it was easy to go off track if you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings. Especially on the metro. Yes, that was it. Their young friend would be along soon enough. Nothing to worry about. Pay no attention to the buzzing of the comlinks.

But of course that was thirty minutes ago. Now the klaxons were screaming all throughout the mess hall as the few Dispatchers who remained shoveled a few more bites into their mouths before scurrying off. Trays and silverware crashed haphazardly into the collection bins near the kitchen, splattering food and drink everywhere. Many hadn’t even bothered to clean up their tables. A hurricane of trash littered the tile floors. Scuff marks from their boots formed curved lines that Max liked to imagine were some form of cursive when he stared at it for long enough. It was a nice way of maintaining a sense of order in the madness. After all, he reasoned, if I keep looking down, the path ahead won’t seem as daunting.

And yet the more he looked at those scribbled marks, the more they became waves, and the garbage seemed an ocean of chaos. By the time the klaxons stopped and he tore his eyes away from the mesmerizing scene, he realized the Barreau boys were the only patrons left in the entire mess hall. Even the Dispatchers who normally worked security there had gone.

“All right, that’s it,” Max jumped to his feet. “We’ve got to go find him!”

“Yeah, where do you propose we start?” Lucien smirked. “It’s after curfew, the subways have shut down, and the Metropoliès is probably a traffic jam of people trying to-”

Max grabbed Bernard’s cup of apple juice and splashed him in the face.

“You don’t get to make any more excuses today after all the shit you pulled!” the leader shouted.

“Have you gone mad?!” Lucien yelled, grabbing a handkerchief to wipe his face.

“The last thing Quentin needs is to be stuck out there alone with a bunch of trigger-happy Dispatchers on the loose!”

“And the last thing any of us need is to get involved! He’s an Outlander, Max. The west wall got bombed. Take a wild guess where he is.”

“You son of BITCH!” the elder shouted, shoving trays aside as he lunged across the table at Lucien. Bernard wedged himself between the two boys to pry them apart, but it was no use. Max reached under his arm and grabbed his rival by the jacket all the same. He’d taken a steak knife from one of the other boy’s trays on the way over and held it directly over Lucien’s eye now, a snake ready to strike. Everyone at the table gasped. His heart pulsed and flickered through his head like the failing electricity of the Barreau District, yet deep down, he knew he did not have the guts to do such a thing. Lucien knew it too. And that angered Max even more, the realization that no matter what he did, no matter how hard he wished it, he could never be the one to permanently wipe that self-assured smirk off his rival’s face.

“Max,” Bernard shuddered, “let it go.”

The elder huffed and glanced down at the rest of the boys at the table, their faces awash with shock and fright. Several of them appeared just as angry at Lucien, though he noticed some were glaring in his direction as well. Tomas had also grabbed a steak knife and was prepared to use it if necessary. Dear God, what have I done? He let go of Lucien and backed away, hurling the knife to the floor to add to the ocean of chaos. Tomas kept his eye on Max all the while, even after the elder managed to sit back down.

“Are we all good here?” Bernard asked.

“Yeah, we’re golden,” Lucien grinned. The young African socked him hard across the face. There was an audible crack. Max wasn’t sure if it was his fellow elder’s jaw or the bones in Bernard’s hand; all the same, the boy cradled his fist and bit his lower lip as he sat back down, muttering curses under his breath. Lucien said nothing further. He took up his tray and went to clear it. Silence filled the air, broken only now and again by the crashing of silverware and plates being cleaned by the kitchen staff.

“Now,” Max breathed, “if we are all finished eating-”

“We are now, thanks to you,” Tomas snapped, grabbing up his tray and storming off.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

“It’s a bit late for that,” another boy said. Several others got up to join him.

“Oh come on, guys! Louis, Marcus, really?!”

“Max,” Bernard sighed, shaking his head. “Don’t bother.”

“This isn’t what I wanted.”

“Perhaps it was inevitable after this morning.”

“Goddamn it, we’ve got to find Quentin!” the elder pounded his fists into the table. A lump had formed in his throat, and much as he screamed, it wouldn’t let go. His heart, too, kept him in a state of never-ending panic. He felt solely responsible for guiding his boys in the proper direction—a road which Lucien seemed adamant on destroying. The prospect of what might happen if the orphanage lost one of their most valuable assets was unthinkable. That boy was their only connection to doing business on the Outlanders’ turf. But of course, Lucien stated he didn’t give a damn about the Outlanders. Now, it seemed they had attacked the west gate. I wonder…

“Hey Lucien,” Max called, taking his own tray to the counter.

“What do you want, rat? I have nothing more to say to you.”

“Oh, I’m the rat now? Seems to me that you’re the one drawing this line. I thought we were in this maze together, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Wrong is a matter of perception.”

“Don’t fucking philosophize this. I realize you’re scared for whatever ridiculous reason, probably because you had to go on that radio show and tell the entire city that Outlanders can be reformed. A position which, now considering the attack on the west gate, will get you lynched. Is it really worth fracturing our group over?”

“No, is it really worth keeping Quentin over? That’s the real question. Besides, only conspiracy theorists take Casanov seriously. The fact we happened to run into one at this shitty dive earlier isn’t so surprising.”

“Lucien-”

“I’m exactly where I want to be when this war starts, Max. Are you?” The elder threw his tray into the pile with the others and stormed out with his new band of loyal followers, at least three of which he’d won over after having the steak knife pointed in his face. For a moment, Max had to wonder if perhaps the older boy had a point. Mayor La Cour, even with the greatest of intentions, could not help them. They did need more reliable business connections, and they couldn’t save everyone. This job had made that fact painfully clear.

Still, inciting fear was not the path to positive change. And if there was one thing about which Max remained certain, it was that Quentin Vaugrenard was as much a Barreau boy as the rest. He would never willingly betray them. There was no way he had anything to do with the attack on the west wall. But there was no reasoning with Lucien. Not anymore.

“Shit,” Max closed his eyes.

“Hey!” a female voice boomed from the kitchen doorway, startling him. A large, heavyset woman in a hair net and white apron poked her face out to glare at the group of Barreau boys. “We’re closing up now, it’s after curfew. Go home!”

“Thought you were open twenty-four hours,” Bernard pointed out.

“Only for Dispatchers. You guys got badges?” The group let out a collective sigh. “Didn’t think so. Out with you. Now! We got a lot of cleanup to do before the next shift and we need you gone.”

The Barreau boys who remained rose to their feet and carried back their trays, grumbling in protest. Max waited by the doorway to do a head count before escorting them out. It pained him to remember that several of his group had left with Lucien. For better or worse, the lines had been drawn. He wondered what that feisty devil was up to now. Would they be returning home to a wall of tension, or was he intending to move out tonight? Neither scenario seemed fair to either party, and even less so to the boys under their watch. But there was no going back from it. Max could only do what he felt was best for his own flock from here on out.

Drizzling rain and a humid atmosphere greeted them on the streets outside, exhuming deep, earthen scents from the underground. Street lamps flickered now and again up the entire length of the block, though they burned so dim it was barely noticeable. Max and Bernard stayed well ahead of the group to keep a lookout. The shadows were a dangerous place to be past curfew, and given that the west gate was mere blocks from their orphanage, the last thing any of them needed was to encounter Dispatchers who might mistake them for Outlanders. The young elder shuddered at the thought. But even more important than the question of how the Outlanders had managed a successful attack on the wall in the first place, the most pressing matter still remained. Quentin.

“What are we going to do, Bernard? It’s past curfew, I can’t go sneaking around now. God only knows where he is. This is all my fault.”

“You can’t blame yourself for every mishap. Our numbers have grown over the past year. Even with the two of you in charge-”

“The two of us now,” Max corrected him. “Might as well make you official, you’ve been keeping the ranks in line for months and you do as good a job as either of us have. I could use an extra wingman.”

“Still,” the boy sighed, “it’s a lot to keep track of.”

“Well we can’t just abandon people, now can we? That’s Lucien’s thing.”

“Have you considered that perhaps this split is a better idea?”

“I’m not ready to accept that,” Max said. “Though if he ends up doing everything he’s supposed to, I might be swayed. It would certainly take some pressure off our backs. But what about funding? The grants are only for Barreau. I’m not working overtime trading Dispatcher parts to support his petty vendetta if it becomes a permanent arrangement. Not like any of that matters without-”

“Quentin,” Bernard finished, as they rounded the corner into the alley behind the old courthouse. “Sorry for changing the subject. Look, Max…you’ve dealt with quite enough for one day. Why don’t you get Hugo, Marcel, Florian, and the younger ones home? The rest of us can spread out on the surrounding blocks to look for him.”

The young elder sighed in defeat. “That’s if he’s even in this district, and you know it’s not a good idea with Dispatchers patrolling the streets. We are not splitting up. Let’s just get home and deal with it in the morning.”

Max felt hopeless as he strode ahead of the group through the thickening rain, haunted by memories of his earlier interactions with Quentin. Having arrived back at the orphanage to find the boy shaking against the window with his face bloodied and broken was more than enough to stir the elder’s rage. Of course there was still the question of what Edmond had been searching for in the first place. Why had they not taken the boy into custody? He wondered, too, about the validity of Severo’s accusation that morning, or if File 3601 even existed. The Dispatchers are not as innocent as you think.

Blue flashes in the distance tore him from his thoughts as the group crossed Rue La Monte and made their way through a fence in the next alley out onto Rue d’Auseil. A sudden clap of thunder cracked the sky, followed by a torrential downpour. Max felt his heart begin to pound and stopped in his tracks. More flashes came from off in the distance, somewhat closer, though he couldn’t be sure at first if it was lightning or phase unit fire. Then the unmistakable sound of a deep viol cut through the humid air. A soothing melody at first, then powerful, full of emotion, with all the absolute melancholy of unrequited love before descending into shrieking loss, and the erratic feeling of walking on a fraying tightrope whilst the bow bounced haphazardly off the strings. Lightning.

The elder’s eyes went wide, and he immediately gave a hand signal for the boys to hurry across the street into the next alleyway. Several in the group almost tripped over a fallen fire escape that blocked most of the path. Bernard hobbled along behind them after catching the ankle of his trousers on a jagged edge of metal, doing his best to help the smaller boys over the debris. Still, the entrancing music of the viol played on, though didn’t seem able to encapsulate the alleyway. Max waited in the shadows at the far end for the rest of his group to catch up. Strangely enough, the rain seemed to have died down throughout the alley, though it continued to fall in buckets back on Rue d’Auseil.

“Max, what the hell was that?” Bernard huffed.

“Just a creepy old man playing a viol,” the elder replied, peering around the corner to survey the Barreau block. Occasional phase pulses continued to illuminate the night sky in distant alleyways, though the flashes seemed to be dying down. The air was growing evermore humid, giving way to thick fog in the streets. Max hoped they wouldn’t have any problems sneaking back to the orphanage. Dispatchers could be quite stealthy in the dark. Then again, so were the Outlanders. A shudder went down his spine at the thought of running into Igor. Stay focused.

“That was not just a man,” Bernard insisted.

“Rue d’Auseil is a complicated street full of memories after dark. Never go there alone.”

“Holy shit!”

“Keep your bloody voice down! What is it this time?”

“Max…it’s a body.”

“Huh?” The elder glanced down to his right, where the pale corpse of a young boy in tattered clothes lay in a mangled heap. “Fuck!” he shrieked, backing away against the brick wall, not expecting to lean into a hole. He nearly lost his footing until Bernard reached out to steady him.

“Careful.”

“This wall was not crumbling before,” Max panted. “That fire escape wasn’t blocking the path, either. Something happened here.”

“You recognize the boy?”

“No. Wait. That’s Ephram!”

“Outlander?”

“I remember him from the first floor this morning at the villa,” Max nodded. “But he’s been stabbed.”

“Clean through, too,” Bernard pointed out, carefully turning the body. “Some kind of sword.”

“Who the bloody hell in Cavarice carries a sword?”

“Not the Dispatchers.”

“Right. Everyone stay sharp!” Max called out in a hushed voice. His heartbeat quickened as he motioned for the group to back against the wall. Something else was lurking out there in the fog-drenched shadows beyond. He could feel it in every fiber of his being, though he heard no footsteps and the flashes of phase unit fire had ceased. He kept a lookout through the haze in case the streetlamps began to flicker. Nothing. Then he remembered they were carrying no weapons. “Shit,” the elder sighed. “Anybody got so much as a knife on them?”

“Got better than that,” the ten year-old Florian grinned, tossing a phase unit over to him.

“Where the hell were you hiding this?!” Max exclaimed.

“Kept falling down my arm, so I put it ‘round my thigh. Ain’t no Dispatchers touch me there.”

“I just hope you didn’t piss on it,” Max smirked.

“Tomas has done plenty of dirty things with it though on the lower settings,” the boy giggled. Bernard elbowed him in the ribs. “Ow!”

“Enough! You boys are sick,” the newest elder rolled his eyes.

“Well it’s not like there are many girls around. Except Louis, he likes it up the-”

“What did I tell you!” Bernard hissed.

“Kids these days,” Max shook his head and strapped on the phase unit, powering up the familiar blue pulse. The emitter sparked several times before burning a steady bolt in his palm. Satisfied that it worked, he dialed it back down to zero to avoid being noticed by any Dispatchers who might still be on patrol near the Barreau block. “Everyone stay close.”

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