House of Rats – Part 17

Quentin Vaugrenard took a deep breath and descended the crumbling stairwell that led down to the tunnel entrance where, just hours before, the Barreau boys had reentered the city. The black sack he’d slung over his shoulder felt heavier with each step as the breath drawn from his lungs grew painfully thin. Perhaps it was the weight on his conscience. Or how fast he had run from East Central. He wasn’t quite sure, but his muscles ached. Everything in his gut screamed for him to turn back. Sure, he scared the piss out of Lucien earlier just to regain a sense of power, but there was no such freedom when it came to the Outlanders. It was too late to back out now. He’d already made his stop at the orphanage.

He had wanted to pull Max aside throughout the day to tell him everything—how Igor had placed him in the city as a mole to gather information on how to return, and that Lucien was far more dangerous than any of them were willing to see. But he’d given up once he realized that his orphanage elder could no longer protect him anyway. Not from the Dispatchers, not from Lucien’s demands, certainly not the Outlanders. And what troubled him most of all was the fact that not even Severo could shield him from his fate now, wherever it lie.

The young Dalishkova Knight had approached him some months ago to pry for information about Igor. During that time, Quentin kept his secret well from the rest of the gang, though he often grew frustrated with the boy’s constant reminders to trust him. Just be patient, I can get you your freedom. Yet those promises had turned out to be as empty as the state of belief induced by that prayer amulet the knight carried—probably because the object turned out to have no effect on Igor whatsoever. Quentin was thankful Severo trusted him enough not to use it on him, though in some respects it certainly would have dulled the pain of being torn in so many directions with no place left to call home.

But this was it. The final door.

Quentin threw down the bag of phase units and opened a small control panel on the wall. Leaned his head against the cool concrete, just for a moment. Come on, Quent. Just go back and it will all be fine. Yeah right. Not a chance. Lucien would sooner have him kidnapped and tortured. Igor would do worse.

He nervously punched in the six-digit entry code to open the lock, followed by a specific sequence of knocks the Outlanders previously established; if he’d tried turning the wheel to open the door outright, they would assume it was a squad of Dispatchers and open fire. His heart fluttered in his chest when the heavy thing swung inward. As he stepped over the threshold, he hoped he didn’t have to deal with Igor for once, that maybe his former leader was off satisfying his ego elsewhere, perhaps torturing a small desert animal. No such luck.

“About time you got here, chicken,” the dirty little rat rasped. He’d brought three of his subordinates with him; Deirdre, Will, and a newer boy they called Joran. “What took you so long?” Igor wasted no time invading his personal space, forcing Quentin to back away until he nearly tripped over the steel threshold.

“Just got back from the metro.”

Igor snatched the black bag from his hands. “You stink like shit.”

“Likewise.”

“They’d better all be here.” The leader tossed the bag over to Will, who proceeded to do a count to be sure. All the while, Quentin did his best to avoid Igor’s iron gaze, but every time he looked up again, the boy was staring him down like a lion would its prey. He didn’t quit, even after Will confirmed that there were ten phase units. An eternity of silence passed before the former Outlander worked up the courage to speak.

“What more do you want?”

“Why the hell did you leave us?” Igor sneered.

“Obviously I haven’t if I’m still here.”

“The fuck you are!” The leader struck him across the face. “Tell me, how is your nice cushy life inside the wall, eh?”

“Not as cushy as you’d think,” Quentin trembled, rubbing his cheek. He nodded toward the bag of phase units. “So why all this? You could all just come through the tunnel right now. You’ve known about it for months. I’ll even let you in, get you into some abandoned place. Plenty of them on the Barreau block. You don’t have to do this, you know-”

“Oh, it’s not that I have to. I want to! Or did you forget what those Dispatcher scum did to us?!” Igor charged forward, pinning him to the wall and tearing his shirt down the middle to reveal the branding scar on his chest. “Don’t tell me that you FORGET!”

Quentin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the flecks of spit on his face. “So what’s your side of the plan?”

“We’re going to have us some fun!” Igor grinned. “And you’re going to join us.”

“And if I don’t?” He had to choke back bits of vomit as he spoke. Igor’s halitosis was unbearable.

“Then who’s to say what will happen next time you come around with Max and the gang?” the leader challenged, backing away to join his subordinates. “We might not be so nice to you. That’s if we even need your services after tonight. We’ll be city dwellers again, after all. Who knows…I might just come by the orphanage one night and cut all your pretty little chicken throats while you’re fast asleep.”

Quentin shuddered as the scrappy child grinned in that menacing way of his, knowing full well that he could do it if he really wanted. The former Outlander had witnessed Igor do far worse during those first initial months in the desert villa. Things like smashing the skull of the weakest boy, Ewan, then gutting him and cutting off pieces of his body to cook for food. Of course Quentin had lied to Lucien about that part. But the thought of it happening to any of the Barreau boys…

“Look, why don’t you just come through now?” he whimpered. “There’s plenty of room for you at Barreau, I’ll talk to Max. You can join us. You can have a family, a real family! It’s not much, but-”

“SHUT UP for Christ’s sake!” Igor struck him again. “I didn’t plant you in the city so you could find a family and live happily ever after! The Outlanders ARE your family! So either you can die a hero, or you can die a coward. But if I were you, I’d choose wisely, ‘cause there’s only one way out of this, mate.”

“No…” Quentin backed against the wall, his heart hammering away in his chest. During his short life, he’d been ready for a lot of things, but nothing could prepare him for the prospect of death. The very thought hit him harder than any other.

“What’ll it be, then?” Igor asked. “Front lines, or a big bloody chicken coop?”

“I c-can’t just stay in the villa?” the boy choked up.

“What?” his leader gasped, grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him close. “And miss my fireworks, eh? I don’t think so. Nobody stays behind. Not even the girls. Shit, even Deirdre here is going, with her fine pair of tits,” he grinned back at her. “I’ll be right by your side, too.”

“You will?” Quentin was taken aback.

“Unlike Lucien or Max, I’m a hero who does my fighting on the ground with my family. Joran’s going too, and he’s the newest of us.” The boy proudly saluted Igor. “See how committed he is already? More than I can say for you,” Igor turned away.

“He’s indoctrinated.”

The leader chuckled. “I see the city’s turned you soft. What ever happened to you? You were my right hand man, Quent. You used to kill for me. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”

“No, but I do my damnedest to try,” the boy trembled.

“And if your Barreau boys knew, you really think they’d take you back?”

Quentin felt his heart drop to his stomach. The burgeoning lump in his throat had finally burst, giving way to sobs of defeat. Igor was right all along. Freedom was nothing more than an illusion. He could fight it with words and citizenship documents as much as he wanted. He still had no other choice. In fact, he never did. The moment he joined the Outlanders, he belonged to Igor. None of the Dispatchers would come to his rescue if he were a Barreau boy, either. He’d been branded as one of the hunted long ago. I don’t belong anywhere. As if to seal that fate, he took notice of Will in his peripheral vision proceeding to shut and lock the tunnel door behind them. Nowhere to run. He already felt the tight strap of a phase unit going around his wrist. He didn’t bother fighting it.

“Fine.”

“Welcome back to the family,” Igor smiled. “You’re going on the front lines, chicken. Don’t worry. If you die, we’ll name a bridge after you.” He gave the unit one last tug to be sure it was secure and handed him off to Joran and Will. “Take him to join the others by the hatch.”

A sudden electric crackle echoed down the tunnel as Will sparked a blue pulse to light their path.  Quentin plodded quietly into the dark ahead of Igor and Deirdre, the prior warmth from his tears now plastered cold as stone onto his face. His thoughts drifted back to home. Not his home with the Outlanders, or even his home in the Barreau District…Paris. The sound of the phase unit must have triggered a memory lost from within. The last thing he recalled about life on Earth was slipping into an alleyway, curious about some electrical disturbance. Perhaps it was a downed live wire. He had heard his mother’s voice calling behind him clear as day until it abruptly disappeared.

The more he focused on this memory, the more Quentin found himself beginning to feel almost blissfully resolute concerning his probable fate. Family, he thought. Someone out there had loved him. Even in his darkest hour, that seemed enough. Besides, if his mother was not still looking for him on this side of the afterlife, he took solace in the fact that Max definitely was. Perhaps there would still be a chance to escape after all. And when he got back, he would try to find his parents.

I just have to make it through the gate.

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House of Rats – Part 10

A harsh sandstorm had kicked up on the outskirts of the city by late afternoon, blasting grains of dust into every crack and crevice. Rocks and manmade structures were reduced to ghostly shadows of their former appearance in the swirling winds. The golden aura had quickly consumed everything within a two- mile radius, sending those who dwelled outside the protection of the city walls scrambling for cover through the haze. But not everyone had far to travel.

A system of underground tunnels and catacombs hidden beneath the dilapidated old desert villa—where, just three hours ago, the Outlanders and Barreau boys had staged an operation against the Dispatchers—served as a refuge for the exiled gang. Much of their daily life was in fact lived down here, away from the harsh heat of the desert sun. The deeper caves worked well for food storage, fires could be built for cooking, and the system was large enough for everyone to have their own space.

That is not to say that life below the surface was particularly comfortable; nevertheless, it was how they survived. Every two weeks, Quentin would travel back through an adjoining tunnel with food and supplies from the city. There was not always enough for everyone, which often led to fights and petty squabbling. The ‘first come, first served’ rule seemed to work until someone bashed another in the head with a rock, or until Igor forced his way to the front of the line with threats about cooking one of them for dinner.

But not even he could win this time. They had run out of food a week prior, and everyone was on edge. A fire crackled bright in the corner room of the underground cave, illuminating the walls around them. One of the girls had placed a cast iron pot over it earlier with what she claimed was bone broth.

“This shit tastes like piss!” Igor yelled, hurling his metal cup at the stone wall with a loud clang that echoed throughout the caverns. The dark, reddish-brown contents splattered everywhere, demolishing a series of intricate paintings Olivier had been working on for weeks. Emilie’s attempt to make soup had clearly failed.

Severo sighed and closed his eyes. As a young Dalishkova Knight living undercover with the Outlanders, he was beginning to lose patience. These boys were primal, unhinged. Much like the wolves he once fought off his father’s farm in a previous life. But fighting was no option here. He could not risk being drawn into their animalistic hierarchy, much as he wished to interfere at certain moments. It was becoming ever more difficult to remain steadfast. The boy took a deep breath and glanced over his letter, remembering the assignment. Everything would fall into place soon. I am a Knight of the Order of Dalishkova, he prayed. My sword is my oath.

“The fuck are you writing?” Igor demanded, kicking sand at him.

Severo tightened his grip on the prayer amulet in his hand until its sharp edges dug into his palm. He could not abide this boy.

“Nothing important.”

“No? Let’s have a look then,” the leader insisted, making a grab for the paper. Severo shifted away. “It’s not good to keep secrets from us, Chicken.”

“I told you it’s not important. Just writing my thoughts.”

“Ah, you’re some artist like Olivier, eh? Writing poetry or some shit!” The scrappy boy’s voice broke as he giggled. “Thoughts don’t do you chickens good down here. That much I know.” He picked up a nearby bottle of whisky by the fire, biting the cork off and spitting it out to down a shot’s worth. Severo scribbled a brief note on it and returned to his letter, concentrating again on the flickering fire and the howling winds above.

He had kept a meticulous diary on every single boy and girl in the gang. It ranged from everything to what their interests were and what drew them together as a group, to the extent of their loyalties, personal motives, and what compromises they were willing to make. Most importantly, he had learned of their greatest fears and weaknesses—what kept them up at night, what put them into high-stakes competition with one another. He could recite every name, every fact they were willing to divulge about themselves and even some they were not; telepathy was permitted by the Dalishkova for reconnaissance. And yet of all the people he was able to catalogue during his time spent among them, there remained one final enigma. Igor.

The boy’s mind was solid as the stone walls around them. Severo had no idea how it was possible. Part of his initiation into the higher ranks of the Dalishkova was to overthrow the young leader of the Outlanders gang. But the mental brick wall he faced with every telepathic attempt to drill into the boy’s mind made it especially difficult. Such an element of access for this task was crucial—there was nothing to be gained from a conversation with someone like Igor. He had learned that much on the first day.

Over the next month, Severo began to wonder if something could be gleaned from Igor’s methods. There had to be a kind of pattern to his decision-making process. But at every turn, the boy proved to be the most unpredictable person he had ever encountered in his life. For example, the Outlanders had a reputation as cannibals, which kept a great many citizens of Cavarice in perpetual fear during their downtown reign. Severo quickly learned that it wasn’t true, or if it was, it was only true some of the time.

That’s why the rest of the gang feared him. The boy lived his life on a whim. Whatever he decided was law, and that law was subject to change on a daily basis. Sometimes he did his own dirty work, sometimes he had others do it. He could be merciful, but also ruthless. Most of the time he lacked any sign of fear, and other times, he seemed terrified—terrified of what, nobody knew.

And so Severo was beginning to suspect the Dalishkova had done something to him. No one’s mind was shattered enough to be blocked from psychic influence, even among patients in the Alabaster Bay Asylum. In order for Igor to have reached such a point, an extraction rite had to have been performed. And therein lay the problem—extraction rites were forbidden. To forcibly separate a soul from any physical incarnation went against the very laws of nature, and they were precisely what had gotten Archaides and his cult of followers banished from the Order months ago.

But if the Dalishkova were now engaging in such dark rituals themselves, could that mean they had been infected by the same corruption as the rest Cavarice? Severo shuddered to think so. They were among the first to arrive in Viktorium, and thus held a responsibility to maintain balance. If they abandoned that sacred duty, the future of the Order was at stake.

But first thing was first. Severo had to figure out how best to usurp Igor in the most indirect manner. To that end, Maxwell Ferrier seemed to be his only shot. He had observed the boy on several missions, and had taken quite a liking to him. Sure, there were moments the elder could be quite gullible; Lucien’s deception stood out like a sore thumb to the young knight. But Max was a good leader who consistently demonstrated the utmost resolve, even when faced with Igor’s intimidation tactics. If there were any chance at disposing of the Outlanders’ leader, Severo was convinced he would be the one.

His letter was urgent. After the evening operation with the Outlanders went down, the Barreau boys would no longer trust them. But if he could at least keep faith with Max, the Dalishkova might finally have the leverage they needed to take out Lucien Riviere before he became a very real threat to the city of Cavarice.

“You son of a bitch!” Olivier shouted, interrupting Severo’s thoughts. The tray of paints he’d carried in to finish his mural splattered to the floor the moment he caught sight of Igor’s handiwork. Splotches of multiple colors formed tiny pools in the sand. Some ran off into the fire, sparking up new flames.

“Your zebra looked a bit sick,” Igor remarked. “Just thought the soup might help, but he upchucked it all over. Sorry.”

“I’ve been working on this for over a month!” Olivier cried, visibly fighting back tears.

“Waste of time, chicken. Just like everything else down here. Fuck do you care, no one’s ever going to see it.”

“I’ll kill you!” His young second-in-command drew a shank he’d fashioned from an animal bone out of his waistband.

“Oh, now that’s bloody smart.”

“I will! I’ll do it!”

“Go ahead, chicken!” Igor spat, tossing down the bottle of whisky. “Come on! See what you got.” He tore off his undershirt and whipped it in the fire. Flames surged and engulfed the material, illuminating the boy’s face. The rage in his eyes was that of a lion whose authority had been challenged. A light sheen of sweat was forming on his skin, accentuating a tiny washboard of abdominal muscles that would not have been visible if the boy had eaten properly.

But despite the fact Igor was stronger, Severo detected an immediate disturbance in the air as Olivier’s anger cut through his meditation. Those paintings on the wall meant everything to him. In a gang of children where none had much left to live for, each had created their own unique sense of meaning and purpose through escapism. For Olivier, it was the paintings. Emilie crafted tiny dolls, and Camillo wrote stories. Regardless of the medium, these things were literally what kept them going. And Olivier was prepared to kill for it.

“Don’t think I won’t!” the boy shouted.

Severo’s heart hammered in his chest. Just as he felt himself on the verge of interfering in the fight and breaking a cardinal rule of the Dalishkova, a low guttural groan sounded from across the room. Georges was waking up.

“Shit. Now look what you’ve done, chicken!” Igor relaxed his fighting stance and stepped past the boy to knock the Dispatcher unconscious again. Big mistake. That’s when Olivier made his move. The young leader had brushed past his left. In a single fluid motion, the distraught young boy jabbed out hard with his bone shank, driving it hard into his superior’s stomach. Igor stopped with a hard gasp as the breath was forced from his lungs.

His skin flushed. Pupils dilated. The hard expression on his face immediately fell soft as his gaze shot downward. Blood squirted out around the white bone knife Olivier had plunged into him just above the belly button. He choked briefly, those lion’s eyes of rage still focused far across the room at Georges. Captain Georges, his last victim, and now witness to the boy’s demise. One awoke while the other fell asleep. Such irony. Poetic justice. Fitting in every symbolic sense.

Or at least that’s what Severo foresaw before making the decision to interfere. It became clear in Olivier’s eyes from the moment Igor abandoned his guard. There was no question. He was going to make his move, and there was no stopping him—at least not physically, which put the young knight into quite a difficult position. He did admire Olivier’s determination. But the boy was not Max, and it was not Igor’s time to die. There would be no time to get up and shove anyone aside. No getting around it. Fuck.

Severo closed his eyes and reached forth with his mind. In the calm of the flickering darkness, he saw the young Outlander across the fire with the bone shank in hand, ready for the kill. A quiet rage stirred deep in his gut. The boy’s breathing was ragged, his arm tense. Spine rigid. Stance staggered. Severo felt all of these things as his own, from the shoulder down to the elbow, to the hand which held the weapon in its merciless grasp.

The air changed when Igor passed by. Severo snapped open his eyes—pupils pure white with power—and took control of Olivier at the last second, forcing the arc of the boy’s arm wider to the right. His fated jab missed Igor by quite a wide margin. The young knight immediately cut his psychic hold on the boy as he recoiled in shock. Of course Olivier was aware what had happened on a surface level; he missed. But the manner in which his arm was redirected went completely against the instruction of his own mind, and that was a realization the Dalishkova had been warned never to stick around for when seizing control.

Olivier’s arm lingered in the air a moment. Igor took advantage of this and grabbed the boy’s wrist, hurling him around against the wall. Drove a knee into his crotch. Uppercut his nose. Took his neck and slammed his head back into the rock. The leader’s grip was like iron on his subordinate’s throat. With his left hand, he squeezed Olivier’s wrist until he at last dropped the shank. Georges groaned something unintelligible across the room through the gag over his mouth.

“Shut him up, will you!” Igor snapped at Severo.

Dear God, what have I done? the young knight thought. But it was better to tend to Georges and keep his head down. He had already risked drawing too much attention to himself.

“You,” Igor spat, crushing Olivier’s neck beneath his grasp as the boy squirmed and choked for air, “have been a naughty little chicken!”

“Please!” Olivier cried. “Please don’t, I didn’t mean to-”

“Shut up!” He rammed his knee into the boy’s crotch again and bent down to pick up the bone shank, resuming his grip on his throat. “What’s this, eh chicken? Fuck do you call this!”

“It’s nothing, I swear!”

“Oh, you hear that Sev?” Igor giggled. “Nothing. Just like your poetry! And this rat’s paintings. This is a lovely knife, by the way. Perfect for gutting bad chickens.”

“Don’t kill me, please!”

“Now why would I do that? You’re more good to us alive, chicken. Just like Georges over there. But I’ll cut you a little deal, yeah. I’ll only take one of your balls now,” the leader said, running the shank up the boy’s inner thigh, “and I’ll save the other for desert. How about it, chicken?” He made a slurping noise. “Bad chickens make good soup.”

Severo sighed. “Igor, let him go.”

“Excuse me?”

For a moment, the young Dalishkova drew a blank. He had hoped not to get involved. But seeing as how interference was forbidden and he had already chosen to cross that line by saving Igor’s life—passive though the involvement was—this hardly qualified. So why did it bother him so much?

“You need every man you can get when we take the wall tonight,” he said. “Leave him with me. I’ll watch him.” What the hell are you doing, Sev? Stop it before you’re in over your head.

“And why should I do that?”

The knight hesitated. “I know why you always go for the cocks…why you call everyone ‘chicken’.”

It was a wild guess. But he had suspected it for some time. There was a rage in Igor that seemed very much sexually driven. Every time he spoke of torturing someone, it always had to do with mutilating their genitals. He called everyone ‘chicken’, a term which seemed to insinuate they were afraid, equally as much as he used it in place of the word ‘cock’. He seemed self-assured, confident when he could display such power to everyone else. Why not? It certainly kept them in line.

But denying him that pleasure was an enormous risk that had the potential to rip a gigantic hole in the boy’s fragile ego, and Severo knew this. It was also something he was hoping for. If he could make enough of a psychic dent in the boy’s mind—no matter how small—there was a far greater chance his mission would succeed. There was no convincing him through conversation. Or maybe…

Igor’s expression softened as he loosened his grip on Olivier. Then he reared back and brutally pummeled the boy in the stomach and chest six times, uppercut his face again, then landed one final blow to his jaw. There was an audible crack as the boy cried and spit up blood everywhere. Igor huffed with a smirk and stood back, appearing satisfied at his work.

“Now that’s a pretty painting, chickens.” He dragged his former second-in-command over to Severo and threw him down in the sand at his feet. “He’s all yours. Get your team ready for the tunnels. We march at eight o’clock sharp. Congratulations, Sev. You’re my new deputy. Means you’re not a chicken anymore.”

The young leader bent down and grabbed up his bottle of whisky from beside the fire and downed another swig. Paused a moment as if in thought, then hurled it into the flames where it crashed and exploded in a satisfying fireball. He grinned contentedly to himself and stormed out.

Severo felt guilty. It had been a cheap shot on his part, and it got Olivier beaten up in the process. The depth of shame Igor must have felt at such an attack on his manhood—and, more importantly, his authority—was not something the young knight could even begin to imagine. Still, even without reading the boy’s mind, it taught him one thing: Igor had buttons that could be pressed. And the more he became aware of what those buttons were, the easier it would be to uncover exactly what the Dalishkova had done to him.

But all things would come in time.

The young knight ran a hand through his straight black hair and knelt down over Olivier, who was sobbing quietly. It was difficult to clear his mind of all that had occurred. Worse still were the dangers and trials yet to come. None of it weighed easy on the mind. But he continued to take refuge in The Oath, and that was all he could do for now.

Severo kissed the boy’s head and clasped his hands together with the amulet to pray blessings of healing on him. The verses also had a pacifying effect on the mind, in case he should ever begin questioning why he had lost control of his own body earlier. Whatever the knight said would make sense. Even if Olivier had no faith, the amulet would ensure his belief. That was, after all, the Dalishkova way; belief was but a tool to manipulate and exercise power over lesser beings.

Given enough time and training, a Dalishkova Knight could make anyone see and believe in whatever their mind had the ability to conjure up. Severo had at first found it a terrifying prospect. Within him existed the potential to cause endless horror, suffering, and agony. But during his time with the Outlanders, he had come to find that so much good could be done with his gift as well.

Olivier was beginning to calm down.

“Severo, is that you? I don’t understand…my pain is gone.”

The knight smiled. “Rest, my friend.”

The boy unclasped his hands and twirled the amulet necklace above his face.

“Are there really gods in Viktorium?” he asked. “Somehow, I think I can feel them watching over me.”

“They watch over us all.”

Severo didn’t believe it himself, but he hoped so. He really hoped so.

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House of Rats – Part 6

Following the initial shock of hearing Lucien’s voice on the radio along with the outrageous accusations which followed, Max leaped out of the tub to change the station. He turned on the shower again, extra hot this time, and resumed furiously scrubbing himself down. Scrubbed so much, his skin turned red. His heart was on the verge of exploding. What the hell is Lucien on about? The young elder was aghast. As he looked back on every experience they shared together, he started to analyze every detail that didn’t fit. His actions made no sense.

Why had Lucien been so eager to leave during their operation, and even more puzzling, how could he know Igor would go along with it? The leader of the Outlanders had little incentive for keeping them alive in the first place, even if the Dispatchers had walked right into their trap and dropped their equipment. It wasn’t as if they could survive in the city. Besides, they had proven they certainly didn’t require the help of the Barreau boys either. Something more was amiss here and Max was determined to figure it out.

He grabbed a towel from an end table and quickly dried himself off, waiting for the music to finish before switching off the radio. He was about to start gathering a fresh set of clothes from his corner dresser when there came a frantic knock at the door.

“Just a moment!” he called, adjusting the towel around his waist. The incessant banging continued until he turned the locks. When he opened the door, Quentin barged in, consumed by a fit of hysterics.

“Max, you’ve got to help me!” he cried. The young elder was stunned. Fourteen year-old Quentin was never one to be the emotional type, not even in the face of extreme danger or potential loss of life, yet he appeared horribly distraught.

“All right Quent, calm down.”

“You don’t understand! On the radio, the Second Lieutenant Dispatcher, he named me, and then Lucien-”

“I heard,” Max assured him, slamming the door shut and locking it. “Okay, listen. Here’s what we’re going to do. You obviously can’t meet us in the mess hall. I’m not so sure I should go either because they’ll be looking for me too. In the meantime, don’t go outside until I can grab documentation proving you’re a legitimate citizen.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve got to sneak over to the old courthouse,” he said, throwing off his towel and snatching a pair of trousers from his dresser. “Stay up here. There’s food in the ice box if you want to make yourself something.”

“What if they come while you’re away? You’ve got to hide me somewhere!” he panicked, tearing open the cabinets for any empty space he could fit.

Max sighed. “They already think I’m hiding you anyway. Not that it will do much good, but there is a trap door under my bed with a crawl space. Look, Quentin-”

“Ah perfect, thanks!” the boy smiled, diving to the floor to yank up the rug.

“Quentin, I’m proper angry too, but we’ve got to keep our heads. So what if they know your name? They could find out all of ours if they wanted. Nothing will come of this once I get your documents to save them the trouble. Anyway, I’m sure they were far too traumatized by what happened in the desert to come here and start messing with you.”

“Lucien just tied us directly to the gang, and I’m the one who led them into that trap! We’re finished, Max!”

“Of course if they do figure out the details of all we’ve done, perhaps they’ll stop messing with us.”

“Or they’ll cut what little funding we do have and exile us and we’ll be forced to turn into cannibals too! I really don’t think you’re getting it. We’re proper fucked! Completely, totally fucked!”

“Quentin-”

“They’ll tie us all to the gang and, and they’ll exile us and then Igor will chop off our balls and eat us all alive while they f-force you to watch, or maybe the Dispatchers will find me and hang me from a telephone wire, they’ve done it before you know with that old Brady man, what’s his name!

“Quent!”

“And then maybe Lucien will take the opportunity to chop off my cock too and, and feed it to Igor, just blood and guts reigning down on that psycho child as he smiles and laughs and the Dispatchers will rape us all up the arse-”

Max slapped him across the face.

“SHUT UP! Just get your fucking head on, will you?”

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, rubbing his cheek. “I’m just so scared, I didn’t know where else to turn.”

“Look,” Max said, grabbing his shoulders. “I’m scared too. But you’ll be fine up here for a while. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you. Use the crawl space if you need to, yeah?”

Quentin nodded.

“Thank you.”

“Bernard’s downstairs, I’ll let him know what’s going on.” Max looked in the mirror next to his dresser, pulling on the rest of his clothes. “Something missing…aha!” He had nearly forgotten his head covering. If he were recognized on the street, it would only make things worse. Quentin briefly poked his head out from examining the crawl space when the elder opened the corner window.

“You’re going through the alley?”

“Through the next building over, then the alley. I’m sure as hell not walking out the front door,” Max said. “I’ll see you when I get back. Lock the window.”

“Yes sir!”

Max stepped out onto the fire escape ledge and made his way down the crooked ladder against the brick wall, the wind taunting him with every step. It hung at such an angle that he always feared it might fall. He closed his eyes and shook off the vertigo. It’s only from the second floor, he reminded himself. The drop to the ground wasn’t so bad once he got to the bottom. But just as he hit the last rung, the first floor window opened in front of him.

“Where are you sneaking off to?” It was Bernard.

“The old courthouse, and holy shit!” Max exclaimed.

“Sorry.”

“You know I hate this ladder!”

“Why the courthouse?”

“I guess you didn’t catch Andre Casanov’s show,” Max caught his breath. “For whatever stupid reason, Lucien went on and got himself branded a hero, then outed Quentin. I need to break in and get his documents before the Dispatchers come. He’s holed up in my room.”

“Need me to stall them if they show up?”

“Please.” He took out his pocket watch to check the time. “The radio show just ended a few minutes ago, so we at least have a small window. If I’m not back before lunch, you can lead our boys down to the mess hall without me.”

“What if the Dispatchers take Quentin for questioning?”

“Would you like to spend the night with our cannibal friends outside the wall?”

“Of course not!”

“Then don’t let it happen. I’ll see you in thirty.” Max dropped down the ten feet from the ladder, a sharp pain reverberating through his legs as his feet hit the ground hard. He hopped it off and turned back when he caught wind of Bernard chuckling quietly at him. “Shut up!” he smirked.

“Careful out there, mon Capitaine.”

Max saluted him and went on his way.

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House of Rats – Part 3

The tunnel ahead was dark as the caves behind them, though a lot more time seemed to have been spent on its construction. Where the previous segment had been a strange, meandering path through a series of stalactite caves with only railings to guide them, the next half was a very wide red brick hallway nearly as big as a subway tunnel. There were no tracks, stairs, or exits to be seen anywhere aside from at the very end, however. Max’s best guess was that it had been one of the many abandoned projects cut by the Cavarice Construction Committee following DuPont’s exile.

As they continued on through the dark with the blue beam of light still illuminating their way, he couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of unease radiating through his bones. He wasn’t quite sure if it was just the phase unit or not, but a troubling realization began to dawn on Max the more he dwelled. Perhaps that’s why everyone else isn’t afraid to die, he thought. Because they died before. Even the Dispatchers themselves age. They all age. That’s why Georges looked so terrified. He never stared into the face of death. Now Igor wants my blood too.

“We’re home,” he breathed as they at last reached the exit. He made sure to take one last whiff of the cool, dank, earthen smell he so adored in the underground before twisting the wheel and pushing open the door. Bernard stepped ahead of him to make sure the coast was clear in the stairwell which led to the surface before calling up the rest of the boys.

“Clear!” he said.

Max switched off the phase unit and removed it, shoving it away in an old coal sack with the rest of the stolen Dispatcher parts. The team of boys made their way up two flights of stairs to the surface and through a hallway of rubble and scattered papers, checking to be sure the street level was also clear for them to scurry across Barreau Boulevard and back to the orphanage with their loot.

The ten of them breathed a collective sigh of relief as they trudged up the stairs to the front entrance. Max eagerly dug the key out of his trouser pocket and twisted it into the lock, kicking open the stubborn oversized piece of wood. Bernard closed it behind them since he hadn’t the strength left to move it anymore.

“Here,” Max said, tossing the heavy bag of parts to Stephen. “Put them away. I need a shower before lunch.” He found himself crinkling his nose again upon realizing they all stunk.

“What about Lucien?” a boy named Tomas asked.

“After lunch. Take an hour to get cleaned up, everyone. I’ll meet you down at the mess hall.”

The young orphanage elder said nothing more and labored his way up the stairs to his own flat as the other boys excitedly ran off to their room. He did miss the orphanage he was raised in himself. Barreau was a renovated office building, and the main hall which housed the other boys had been nothing more than a giant room full of desks and filing cabinets. After setting up their beds, some of the boys had placed the cabinets between them for privacy in addition to storing clothes, though most didn’t seem to care.

Still, Max wanted so much more for them. Despite the fact that a few could often get on his nerves, they were all good boys. There was Bernard of course, whom he had come to view as an elder of equal standing and helped him keep the rest in line when Lucien wasn’t around. Were the Dispatchers Training Programme still in effect, Max could easily see Bernard becoming captain. There was Tomas, a boy just a year younger with whom he would consistently butt heads. Louis, who needed protecting from Marcel’s roughhousing. Hugo, whose practical jokes were famous. The rest were a lively bunch who never failed to keep him on his toes either.

After stripping down, Max turned on the radio, deciding he needed a good bit of distraction to keep his thoughts from wandering into dark territory concerning the day. Perhaps he could catch up on Andre Cazinov’s show. It had been a rough five hours in the desert. Fortunately, they seemed to have acquired enough to keep them from having to go on another run for quite some time. Which meant that his skin—and fingers, and toes, and ears, and nose, and eyeballs…and cock—were safe from Igor’s rage for the foreseeable future. Feeling secure in that knowledge, he proceeded to set the shower to cold, though switched to hot at the last moment as he felt sufficiently cool already.

Static poured out of the old radio before the program came on the air. The water ran almost black with dirt down the drain as he shampooed his long brown hair, then took to scrubbing his face. He had just gotten to soaping up the rest of himself when Cazinov’s smooth voice hit the airwaves following a lengthy musical intro. Ever the showman, that one.

“Greetings, fine citizens of Cavarice!” the man said in a tone so grandiose, it was almost nauseating. “I hope you all are enjoying your lunch hour. As you all know, Mondays are when we interview those whom we recognize here on the show as heroes. And not just any heroes folks, but those certain people who go above and beyond the call of duty on especially rare occasions. And boy, do we have one hell of a tale for you today! My first guest so happens to be a Dispatcher. Now I know you all must be thinking, ‘Oh Andre, these men go above and beyond every day, what is so unique about this particular character?’ But I can assure you folks, this gentleman is the real deal after what he experienced earlier today just three hours ago. Sir Mr. Dispatcher please, would you kindly state your name?”

“This is Edmond Fasche, Second Lieutenant rank.”

“WHAT?!” Max was so startled, he nearly fell. “No way!”

“Ah yes sir, Mr. Fasche, thank you for coming on the show. Would you like to give a nice hello to everyone out there in Viktorium?”

“Hello everyone.”

“Thank you again. Now I understand that you are here because you yourself are not a hero, but you’ve brought someone with you who you say has earned it, is that correct?”

“Yes sir. This young man has shown outstanding bravery in the face of certain death.”

“I see. Why don’t you give me the general background of your story here, for our listeners.”

Still covered in soap suds, Max abruptly shut off the water to listen more closely.

“We were trailing a young orphan boy outside the city whom we later identified as Quentin Vaugrenard. We ended up following him three kilometers across the desert after he informed us some Outlanders had slipped past one of our checkpoints and kidnapped a few boys from Barreau Orphanage. We found them holed up in an abandoned villa.”

“The Outlanders gang? My god, you saw them?! Now is it true that they are cannibals?”

“We do not have confirmation. It seems to be a myth as far as we know. Anyway, they ambushed us, and one of them leapt out and attacked our captain with a knife.”

“Oh my god! Horrible, just horrible! I am so sorry you had to experience that ordeal at the hands of those savages! And to watch it no less. Where exactly is he now, did he get out?”

“Regrettably, they took him. We don’t know for sure. He thought the hostage situation was just a diversion to steal our equipment. But then I heard a young man shouting for help from the second floor of the building. And as per our Code of Service, well…our captain would have wanted us out alive to save these boys. I only wish he could be here with us today.”

“What an idiot, your captain hates you!” Max laughed.

“Ah, I see. Well I wish he was here today too, he sounds like a great man.”

“The Outlanders would have killed the Barreau boys after they stopped being useful to them in taking our gear, but this man had the courage to speak out and alert us that the hostage situation was indeed real.”

“Now I just have to ask, is it of any concern to you that the Outlanders now possess your phase units?”

“They would only be a minor threat to us. We are issued new equipment from Tesla every six months, so we’re due for an upgrade.”

“Ah. Well I have to say, this is an absolutely amazing tale of courage. Okay ladies and gentleman, we have our hero in the studio with us right now. Sir kind sir, would you please state your name for everyone listening at home?”

“Hello Andre, it’s a pleasure to meet you! I’m a regular fan of your show and listen in myself all the time during my lunch hour. To be honored by you, it’s…well it’s frankly a privilege for me to be here right now.”

“Thank you very much sir! But uh, you forgot to tell us your name.”

“Oh, of course, sorry. My name is Lucien. Lucien Riviere. And just for the record Edmond, that’s not quite how the story goes. You see, for starters, Quentin Vaugrenard is actually one of the exiled Outlanders whom my associate Max snuck back into the orphanage some time ago…”

Max tore open the shower curtain, boiling with a rage he had never felt before.

“You have got to be FUCKING kidding!”

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House of Rats – Part 1

Maxwell Ferrier took a deep breath and steadied himself by the third floor window of the abandoned villa, taking care that his face was still covered. He abhorred sneaking out of the city. Not that he feared getting himself into trouble; as an elder of the Barreau Orphanage boys, he was no stranger to that. But forming a temporary alliance with the most feared gang west of Cavarice seemed to be the only way to get their hands on Dispatcher technology. Such devices could fetch thousands on the black market. Since the orphanage received little funding from the government to keep its doors open year-round anymore, it was a necessary evil.

Outside, the sun shone hot across the deserted golden wasteland. Harsh gusts of wind kicked up dust and debris now and again. The villa itself provided little shelter from the elements as most of the doors were ripped off their hinges, the windows smashed. Max wondered how it was that the Outlanders gang had survived out here for this long after being driven out of the city. There was no air conditioning, no electricity, no running water to be found. It seemed a cruel punishment, yet somehow just. They were the most feared organization among Cavarice city folk after all, well known for their sadistic brutality and sociopathic violence. But the only reason they existed was because their leader Igor had been thrown out of the orphanage years ago. In a way, one had to pity him, though of course the scared little boy he once was no longer existed.

Max watched the fearsome child as he sauntered his way through the ranks below appearing authoritative, yet anxious. Hungry for blood, the elder thought. His clothes were tattered and torn as if he’d survived an attack by a wild animal. The oversized trousers he wore hung off his slight frame like the flag of a conquered nation, held in place only by a thread of twine. His complexion was sun-drenched and dirty, his head shaved. The bugger stunk to high heaven. And somehow, that little thirteen year-old rat was their only hope.

“What the hell is taking him so long?!” Igor barked, kicking up dust. Quentin, their bait boy, was fifteen minutes late.

“Give him time!” Max called down.

“I’ll give him time when I’m cutting out his stomach, Ferrier. Then I’ll start with your pretty little eyes!”

“No need to be rash,” he swallowed. “I’m sure he’ll be along.”

“He had better be, or I’m taking an extra ten percent out of your ass!”

Max let out a bitter sigh as Lucien, another of the orphanage elders, stepped up next to him. He could feel the lecture coming again.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing.”

“You don’t have to remind me that this is a bad idea. I’m well aware.”

“As long as you stick to the plan for getting out of here alive. You know how psychologically unhinged that boy is.”

“That much is obvious,” he replied, watching Igor shove one of his subordinates over a rock and proceed to playfully thrust his crotch into the boy’s backside while holding a knife to his throat. “Although I do have to wonder what he’s going to pull when the Dispatchers arrive.”

“Eh…they’re self-righteous braggarts, most of them. They need a good beating every once in a while to keep them fresh.”

“Maybe so, but Igor has done far worse from what I’ve heard.”

Max leaned back against the window frame and listened for any signs of approaching footsteps outside. The old villa was partially built into a natural alcove of rock, which made it perfect for leading unsuspecting victims into a trap such as theirs. The acoustics were beneficial when it was quiet enough; one could hear a pinprick from a kilometer away. But on this particular day, what with the wind howling in the distance and Igor’s frustrated mannerisms below, he began to worry. Then at last it came.

Olivier, Igor’s second-in-command, popped his head over the cliff above to warn them.

“They’re coming!” he called.

“Everyone stay sharp!” Max urged, giving various hand signals for his boys to move in.

“Hugo, Marcus, take point,” Lucien instructed his own crew on the second floor. Those who had fallen back against the wall to stay out of sight now approached the windows with rifles in hand. The entire process was more of a defensive act in case things went south. The plan was to intimidate the Dispatchers into handing over their technology with minimal force involved.

Of course the boys of Barreau Orphanage knew full well that they couldn’t trust the Outlanders, so it helped to have a few weapons trained on them in the mean time. But Igor was no fool either, and much as the villa provided an advantage for this operation, Max knew it could just as easily become their tomb if they weren’t careful.

“Steady everyone,” he said in a hushed voice as the sound of running footsteps drew closer to them. The boys on the ground level below pulled back the hammers on their pistols as Igor stepped out in front of them all. Much as Max couldn’t stand the boy, he had to admit he was quite courageous.

After a few more seconds, Quentin finally rounded the corner rock with a group of three Dispatchers in hot pursuit. Any moment now, they would be able to snag their equipment. So far, so good, Max thought. Now let’s hope Igor doesn’t cock it all up by killing one of them, or us. His heartbeat quickened at the thought, flooding his mind with thoughts of every negative scenario one could imagine. But he shook it off and bit his tongue to stay grounded. Keep calm. You’re all going to get out of here. It will be fine.

“Well, if it isn’t the glorified ghost hunters!” Igor exclaimed, snapping Max out of his trance. Quentin ran back to take cover behind a pile of rocks as everyone surrounded the four Dispatchers on all sides, boxing them in. “I was wondering when you gents would arrive.”

“What do you want, Short Stop?” one of them smirked. Max recognized him as the second lieutenant.

“Idiot!” the first snapped. “They obviously want our phase units.”

“You boys are both morons, I told you this was a trap!” the captain shouted, breaking through the two of them. “They don’t have any hostages.”

“Not ones that matter,” Igor grinned, flashing his yellowed, decaying teeth. “Now,” he added, grabbing the captain and swirling him around to hold a knife to his throat, “why don’t the rest of you be good lads and lay down your weapons before I gut this pretty chicken, yeah?” The other three backed away in fear.

“Son of a bitch!” Max fumed through clenched teeth. “I told him not to do that!”

“You really thought he’d listen to you? We’re on their turf, they’ll do as they like until they get their cut,” Lucien said. “Maybe even then-”

“I don’t want to think about that,” Max cut him off. “Just…stay sharp, please.”

“Like I’m not. We’re all scared here. Keep your wits.”

“I’m doing my best.”

“Good boys,” Igor nodded. “You too Captain Georges, while I’ve got my claws on you. Ah ah, don’t struggle or I’ll paint the sand red with your neck! Now now, that’s a good chicken.”

Captain Georges. Max recognized him as the newest de facto leader of the Dispatchers. Georges was still a boy of about nineteen and very much a coward, unlike his predecessor Pontius who had recently retired from the force. Why the department had allowed him to take charge was anybody’s guess. Pontius had been the one to drive the Outlanders out of the city. Georges would likely be the one to allow them back in, if it ever came to that. Max shuddered at the thought.

“Look, we’re already dead in Viktorium here, what does it matter!” Georges cried.

“You want to test that theory?!” Igor yelled. “Go on, speak another word of shit, I’ll slit your pretty throat!”

Lucien glanced at Max, and they rolled their eyes in unison. The young leader of the Outlanders was clearly determined to drag the operation out for as long as possible to satisfy his ego—an ego that was much too large to be contained by his tiny body.

“Would you just get on with it,” Max muttered.

“Please let me go, you can have our phase units!”

“Very well,” Igor relented, letting go of the captain. The boy unhooked his wrist-mounted apparatus and utility belt, tossing them to the ground in a pile with the rest.

“There you are. Now are we free to go?”

“Not quite yet. Surrender your trench coats. Nights are awfully cold out here.” The older boys obeyed. “And your trousers. Mine are falling off, you see. That’s it. Shirts. Now your shoes. And then your socks.”

“Oh for god’s sake,” Lucien whispered.

“And lastly you, Captain. Your underpants as well.”

“You all have undergarments I’m sure!” he protested.

“Perhaps I don’t,” Igor smiled. “Now how about it. You see all these weapons we’ve got trained on you, yeah?” More hammers clicked below as the Outlanders descended upon him like a pack of ravenous wolves. Georges bit his lip in a whimper, and still Igor urged him on, enjoying every sadistic second.

“What the hell is he doing now?” Max’s heart was pounding fast. A lump had begun to form in his throat.

The young captain below quivered in fear, a mixture of sweat and tears pouring down his softened face. He looked back at his team members with pleading eyes, then again to the boys closing around him. There was nowhere left to run. To Max, he appeared as a helpless animal about to be slaughtered until finally he gave in.

“All…all right!” Georges cracked in a hoarse voice, pulling down his drawers in shameful surrender. He stood stark naked before them, save for the two hands he used to cup himself. Of course Igor would not even allow that much.

“Hands away from the goods. No need to be bashful, right fellas? We’ve all got one!” The rest of the gang laughed as the young Dispatcher obeyed and bore all, weeping in humiliation. “Oh my. Impressive for a chicken,” the leader said. “Such a pretty thing. It’s a shame you had to raise such a fit. Your interest rate just went up.”

With that, Igor drew his knife and lunged forth in a wild rage, ramming it hard into the dejected young captain’s genitals. Max felt his stomach churn as all of the Barreau boys and Outlanders alike let out a collective gasp. A hush fell over the group, followed by a primal cry like none other they had heard before. Blood squirted out from between the captain’s fingers as he cradled his wounded crotch and fell to his knees in agony, screaming into a void of echoes that reverberated all across the valley.

“Holy Christ!” Lucien cringed.

Igor licked his lips and laughed at the spectacle, turning to his band of Outlanders who then joined him like a bunch of howling primates. The other three Dispatchers exchanged horrified glances, uncertain of what to do. Max stood up in fury and headed for the stairs.

“Where are you going?” Lucien stopped him.

“This operation is over, we’ve got to take him out. He’s stark raving mad and so are the rest of them!”

“Careful!” Lucien hissed, noting the Outlander guards posted at both ends of the room. “You want to get us all killed?”

The two of them were interrupted by Igor’s voice below.

“Well then, I think we’ve played with our food long enough, Monsieur Georges. Or shall I call you Georgette now?” The gang roared in raucous laughter.

“This has got to end!” Max snapped. “I told him the rules, not a hair was to be harmed on their heads!”

“If we fire on the Outlanders, we’re dead!” Lucien grabbed his arm. “And if you protest, you can say goodbye to any further operations with them. If the orphanage closes, more gangs form in the city, Cavarice is finished. And the Dispatchers will catch on to us. I don’t like it any more than you do, but our hands are tied. Now stop being a bloody fool and stay up here!”

Max shook his head. “This is wrong.”

“You’re telling me,” Lucien said, turning back to survey the scene in the courtyard below. The captain had fallen into a fetal position with a small pool of dark crimson painting the sand beneath him. The other three were shoved to their knees as several gang members tied their hands behind their backs and gagged them. It was absolute madness. Max could only assume his friend was trying to rationalize it with the Dispatchers Code of Service; they were to sacrifice themselves to Cavarice at all costs, even if it meant losing their lives in the line of duty. Not that there was any honor in this.

“It’s two minutes to noon,” Max said, checking his pocket watch. “If he doesn’t cut them loose before twelve, I’m blowing his head off.”

“He’s not going to do that,” Lucien sighed. “Igor!” he called down. Startled, the young leader dropped his bloody knife and swung around in a rage.

“What the hell do you want, Barreau scum?!” he shouted. Max threw down his rifle and fell back against the wall.

“We’re compromised. Great.”

“Barreau?” the second lieutenant asked. “So you DO have one of the Barreau Orphanage boys hostage up there?! What more do you want, we’ll do anything!”

“Perhaps not,” Lucien thought aloud. “At least that one took the bait. Max, there might be a way we can get Igor to let the Dispatchers leave.”

“In exchange for what?”

His friend pondered a few moments.

“Hmmm…trade me and my boys with them. We’ll go, you can lead the rest of our people out of here once you give the Outlanders their cut.”

“What? No, I can’t do this without you!”

“It’s the only way you’ll keep a leash on Igor, the boy clearly wants blood and he’s not stopping for us! It’ll send them off our trail. The Dispatchers can never find out about this. Pretend I’m your prisoner and hand us over to them in trade for Georges. Igor can do whatever sick, sadistic things he wants to that boy. He’s already taken his cock, there’s not much else to strip him of. Trust me Max, we can do this.”

“Why would Igor agree?”

“We’re his only meal ticket. He knows he can’t demand entry back into the city, they would imprison him right away. He’s playing hard because there’s too many of us up here. Some of us have to go before he fucks us all.”

“All right,” Max relented. “You’ll take the long way home then?”

“Of course, I’m not stupid.”

“Right now, that’s debatable.”

“Yes,” Igor answered the lieutenant below. “We’ve got several of your Barreau boys. And their leader will be the next to lose his cock if you don’t shut that hole in your face!”

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