Night Of The Wolf – Part 16

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

“Please, do come inside.”

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

“Are you ready?” the bishop said.

“Yes. Forgive me.”

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

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

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

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

“Creepy,” Severo muttered.

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“As do we all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps it was misfiled?”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night of the Wolf – Part 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t wander too far.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“STOP!”

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 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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House of Rats – Part 20

Time slowed down as the phase unit flew through the air. Pontius felt a sickness begin to stir in his gut. Sickness at watching Pascal die in a pool of his own blood, sickness at feeling as if he’d lost another son. The sight of fire reflected deep in his golden eyes, and within the flames, he foresaw every last Outlander burning in eternal ruin for what they had done. He would send them all to the pits of Hell, if such a place even existed. Pontius only hoped he wasn’t about to join them, lest he discover that Igor, that twisted little snake now wriggling free of Pascal’s dead body, was in fact the devil himself. The unit descended. Time to move.

The district commander took the arm of the boy holding a knife to his throat and hurled him overhead to the ground. He caught the phase unit midair, flipping it on top of his wrist. Charged a shot. Blasted through the skull of the kid he’d just thrown. An Outlander approached from his left to jab at him with a dull blade. He grabbed her wrist and slammed the phase unit across her arm above the elbow, breaking it. Took her hand and rammed her own blade into her eye. A splash of blood, a scream. The commander whirled to his right and fired pulses clean through the chests of two others bounding down the stairwell at him. Another to his left. Sharp left, center. Two o’clock, eleven. He then trudged his way forward toward the leader and the young boy who had slit Pascal’s throat, snatching up his cane from the sand as he went.

“IGOR!” the man roared.

“Come get me, chicken!” the boy shouted back, unsheathing a machete from his back. “I will cut off your noisy beak!”

Pontius fought off several more underlings along the way. One charged at him on the left. He whipped his cane at their legs, tripping them as he blasted off the arm of another to his right. One more came from behind and managed to slash his back. A sting of pain ran down his spine. The man threw back his cane over his shoulder and jabbed them in the eye. Whirled around, whacked them in the left side. Blasted them through the neck. The commander dropped to his knees just in time for a machete to swing over his head from behind. He leaned backward, changing the setting on the phase unit to ‘flame’ and shot up a fireball in the boy’s face, who fell screaming into the sand. He was satisfied until he realized the boy was not Igor. Shit.

The dirty child howled in animalistic rage past his fallen subordinate and leaped onto Pontius’ chest, knocking him fully onto his back. Igor staggered his stance with one foot on the wrist, another on his chest, and dug the edge of his machete into the old man’s throat. The cane lay just out of reach of Pontius’ left hand. “Any last words before I cut your pretty little throat?”

The aged veteran laughed and spit blood in his face, switching the dial back to ‘pulse’ with one finger. “Yeah. Cluck cluck, you little FUCK!”

He discharged the unit to overload, sending a bolt of electricity up Igor’s leg that made the boy drop his machete and stumble backward. Now free from the weight, he took hold of the cane and whacked him across the jaw. The leader fell to the ground unconscious. The district commander then rolled over to face the last boy standing next to Igor. It was the same one who had taken Pascal’s life just moments before, and the only Outlander left standing in the courtyard. The child dropped the knife and fell to his knees.

“Please don’t kill me!” he pleaded, throwing his hands up. “He forced me to do it, I swear I didn’t want to, but he was going to kill the rest of the Barreau boys if I-”

“Shut up!” Pontius shouted, kicking the boy to his back. He held him down with the cane pressed against his throat. “What’s your name?”

“It doesn’t even matter now…”

“I SAID, WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!” the man roared. Sweat was pouring down his forehead. He could feel the heat welling up in his chest now, boiling his blood until it set aflame with a vengeance hotter than the desert sun. Deep down, he knew it didn’t matter what the boy’s name was; he was going to kill him all the same. But he wanted to hear it just to have the satisfaction of utterly destroying Igor’s best.

“Quentin…” the boy whimpered. “Quentin Vaugrenard…please…OH GOD PLEASE DON’T-”

The boy’s head exploded in a splash of blood and static before he managed to finish his last sentence. Pontius felt his heart stop. He struggled to breathe. A sudden sharp pain slammed him deep in the chest, and he fell to his knees with only the cane to hold him up. The courtyard around him grew eerily silent. That name. Something about that name was important. He took a long look at his surroundings, at the flickering flames, the pale, lifeless corpses of Outlanders and Dispatchers alike, the crimson river of blood that flowed up the darkened street into the shadows beyond. Then it hit him.

“The Barreau boys,” he gasped. “The hostages…he wasn’t an Outlander.” He closed his eyes and shook his head to rid himself of the horrid nausea building in his stomach. A smirk broke across his face, followed by nervous laughter. Pontius reached inside his jacket pocket and removed a flask. Took a brief sip, then a long gulp. “Fuckin’ unreal.” The sound of footsteps pounding the pavement in the distance convinced him to down half of it. He wasn’t about to be sober when every Dispatcher in the city arrived to ask what happened.

A harsh gust of wind kicked up from the south, swirling sands and covering the dead in a torrent of golden dust. Smaller flames around the courtyard were snuffed out or flickered in agitation. The district commander glanced over at the damage done to the gate. The hole that had been blown clean through the door was a gash approximately twelve feet tall, maybe fifteen across. Live wires from the interior still shot out the occasional sparks as sand drifted in with the breeze. The irony of it all was that the gates were to be outfitted with emergency force-fields in just a few weeks.

Pontius blinked his eyes and shook his head again, this time to ward off the spins. Stay focused, old man. Hurried footsteps were gaining closer. Phase units fired from a couple blocks away, mixed with the sound of shouting. The aged veteran turned to pinpoint the exact direction as blue pulses lit up the night sky. That’s when an Outlander flew into peripheral view mere feet from him with a phase unit of his own drawn and ready to fire.

“SHIT!” The man dropped to the ground and threw up his cane as the boy skidded to a stop over him.

“Thought I missed one,” he grinned, the light from the pulse illuminating a slew of jagged scars on his face. “Hey Deirdre, over here!”

“Coming, Joran!” a girl called from the alleyway.

“We’re about to take out every last one of your friends.” The boy chuckled, but the look of satisfaction on his face dimmed to horror. A short sword pierced him through the chest from behind, sending a splatter of blood showering down onto Pontius.

“Joran? Joran-” Deirdre was cut off by the same blade before she could let out so much as a shriek from fifty feet away. The district commander rubbed his eyes and squinted to focus at the scene unfolding around him. Much of it was a blur, though his best guess was that the Dispatchers had engaged in a firefight with the Outlanders, some of whom were now fleeing back to the gate. The only sound that made no sense was a continuous clanging of metal and sharp cleaving along with the misfiring of phase units. What the hell is that noise? he thought. Dispatchers don’t carry swords.

Stumbling back to his feet, Pontius adjusted the dial on his unit and shocked himself to stay awake. Whatever was going on, he was determined to catch every detail. That turned out to be easier said than done. There were no words for it. Human eyes could not move as fast as the trail of blue electric light now zapping back and forth to make mincemeat out of the fleeing Outlanders. The second someone started bleeding from the throat, another was penetrated through the stomach. Legs were cut off, arms sliced, faces, backs, eyes. Every bit got slashed. Stab, slice, zap, zap, slice, zap, slash, stab. A head went flying up in the air at one point with a geyser squirt of blood. Occasionally, wet hacking noises could be heard amid screams as the sword chopped through bones and severed apart limbs.

It was difficult to make out anything but the string of traveling light. It darted to the left, to the right, far in the distance, back to foreground. Even that was so thin as to be nearly invisible. The sword, too, seemed to show up out of nowhere every time it cut. There was a distinct sound of electric static permeating the air as each blow landed, after which the light would travel onward. Pontius shocked himself again, and for the briefest of moments, he at last saw an outline clear as day of a lone figure appearing to teleport between each target.

“That’s impossible!” And yet there they were. The figure was short in stature, just over five feet, and seemed to be wearing some kind of backpack. On their right wrist was attached a crimson-colored gauntlet which Pontius immediately recognized as that worn by the Dalishkova Knights in battle. That explained all the metal clanging. Such armor was outfitted with electromagnets in the palm, so swords could easily be retrieved if dropped, or otherwise be maneuvered in a variety of different positions to defeat an enemy. But combined with whatever technology this person had utilized for instantaneous travel, this was clearly no battle. It was a one-sided bloodbath. And nobody had a chance.

By the time the last Outlander had fallen and the trail of light disappeared, Pontius again found himself on his knees and struggling to maintain focus. The shocks from the phase unit could only keep him so sober. His head swam as he kept trying to process all that had happened between the bomb and the flashes. He couldn’t. And the familiar sight of that crimson gauntlet only filled him with further dread and sorrow. He had run from his past in Helias and everything having to do with the Dalishkova years ago. What could they possibly want with him now? They’d already taken his son from him. Was that not enough?

The man closed his eyes, pressing his forehead against the cane to fight back tears. It had to be one of the Knights, and it had to be a warning. What he’d witnessed was nothing less than the work of a trained assassin; he knew of no way that an outsider could get their hands on Dalishkova technology. None but their innermost circle had access to the munitions vault. Even getting into the city center of Helias without familial ties was often difficult. And unless it was something new, they certainly didn’t have the capability to teleport. Hell, no one in all of Viktorium did, save for perhaps Charles DuPont himself.

“Dear god, what happened?!” a voice called out from a nearby alley. Dispatcher squads were just beginning to arrive on the scene. The district commander opened his eyes.

“You boys missed the party,” he sighed, stepping to his feet.

The squad leader raised an eyebrow. “You did all this yourself?”

“Yeah, Gabriel,” Pontius smirked. “Obviously I had help, but as you can see…” he scowled and pointed around with his cane.

“Sorry we didn’t arrive sooner. We were tracking an anomaly several blocks-”

“Yeah, about that,” the man cut him off. “That thing is no anomaly.”

“Sir?”

“I hesitate to share this for risk of being court-martialed, but seeing as how I managed to kill someone here who wasn’t an Outlander, I think drinking on the job is the least of my worries now. I’ve been shocking myself to stay sober. In between, that thing showed up. Teleported. I didn’t catch sight of them for long, but whoever it was, they had a Dalishkova gauntlet. Made short work of the Outlanders.”

“Understood, sir. Do you perceive any threat from them?”

“Not for you boys, anyway,” Pontius said. “It’s personal.”

“Of course.”

“You can get to securing things here and cleaning up this mess…” The commander trailed off a moment as he surveyed the streets around him. Something about the scene reminded him of the past, though he couldn’t quite place it. “The Workers’ Rebellion,” he whispered to himself. “Defense Minister Corcini, blueprints. Flushing out the tunnel…Gabriel!” He called the boy back over.

“Yes sir?”

“That tunnel in the old Steamworks building off the Barreau block, I want it locked down and sealed immediately!”

“Already done. Second Lieutenant Edmond and his team have secured it.”

“Good,” the man breathed. “Any reports of suspicious activity from that block?”

“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”

Pontius nodded. “All right, I’m heading down there. Got a funny feeling how this all started, and I have to have a little chat with Edmond.”

“Sir, I’d advise you to take my squad with you. We can’t be sure we’ve captured all the Outlanders just yet, and if any are out roaming the streets-”

“Noted,” the commander cut him off. “I’ll be fine. Have fun with cleanup.”

“I’m sure we will,” Gabriel muttered.

Pontius continued on his way alone to a nearby alley two streets across from Barreau. He stopped in the shadows and dug out his flask again, well enough out of view of the squads now descending on the courtyard and atop the wall. His mind was still awash with thoughts of his son as he looked over the pile of corpses near the gate. No matter how much he drank, it never seemed to silence all the memories of what happened that day in Helias, nor his subsequent actions as General under Marco Corcini. Together, they had branded and killed many innocent children—even those who had no previous association with the Outlanders—to make room for the city’s emerging population. Glancing over the bodies, he wondered which of them he’d personally exiled. The veteran gasped as he began to take count.

“Igor…” The infamous leader of the Oulanders was nowhere to be found. Pontius considered alerting Gabriel to run a sweep of the surrounding blocks, but thought better of it. The boy was running scared with no backup in a city crawling with Dispatchers. If he hadn’t run home with his tail between his legs already, he would be caught in no time. What a foolish plan.

The district commander fastened the knob back on his flask and proceeded through the darkened alleyway. It smelled old, dank, untraveled for some time with just a hint of rust. Barely a footnote on the sad history of the Workers’ Rebellion in this district. A sudden movement stopped Pontius in his tracks. His heart pounded. It looked to be the shadow of a child, though he couldn’t say for sure. His vision was blurry and the light cast from the street was too dim to tell.

“Shhh,” a voice whispered. The old man squinted to see, but the specter scampered off around the left corner and vanished.

“Hey, wait!” Pontius rushed forward and tripped over a nearby crate. He fell to the side and caught himself on the wall, using his cane to steady himself. Another step brought his foot down onto a pile of jagged wood pieces and broken bottles that crunched beneath his boot. A nail strewn in the mix drove hard into his heel. “Gah, fuck!” the man cried out, hobbling out of the alleyway. He gave a quick glance up and down the empty street at the corner. There was no sign of the child anywhere. Damn.

Pontius huffed and knelt down, palm resting on the cane as he pivoted his foot outward to reach for the nail. A series of breaths and cringe later, and he’d torn the sharp object from his heel. No time to patch up now. He had to square things away with Edmond, and if there was any chance at finding that mysterious specter—whether it turned out to be Igor, or the stranger with the Dalishkova gauntlet—the old veteran wasn’t about to delay himself. Besides, he thought, bleeding out some of the alcohol will do me good.

“This way, quickly!” a hushed voice said from across the street. Pontius caught sight of a group of ragged children making their way out of the alley just up the block next to an old Catholic church. They clung to the shadows like bats in a cave. Their appearance suggested that they were Outlanders—the dusty, matted hair, crumpled hats, bindings on their legs, crude, worn shoes with holes, torn trousers, frumpy jackets. A shadowy figure dressed all in black, looking far better kempt than the rest, was directing them at the corner.

The district commander made his way toward them on a diagonal path. He squinted all the way, hoping they wouldn’t catch him lumbering along to take cover behind a car on the opposite side. A sudden round of pulses fired through an adjacent alleyway from where he’d come. Frantic shouts followed. But the figure in black remained resolute, even as the younger children began to whimper and run faster down the sidewalk. He seemed determined to hold his position until every last one of them had gone ahead.

Pontius felt his heart thud harder in his chest the closer he drew. The facial features of the boy in black were coming into sharper focus now, and he could also see his skin was paler than the others. His hair was black as the feathers of a raven, eyes like deep charcoal. His chin was soft and rounded. The downward curl of his lower lip made him look like he was frowning. But Pontius knew that he wasn’t, because he would recognize that face anywhere. It had been quite a few years. He was a teenager now, yet the basics remained, and the boy had developed the unmistakable features of his mother.

“Severo?” the man whispered, feeling the heaviness in his chest like a pile of bricks that would not lift. There was no question, now that he was close enough to see his own child. He knew that face, and he missed it beyond words. To have smelled the scents of sweet perfumes mixed in his hair from the merchant markets of Helias, to have kissed the boy’s forehead as he slept, to have run with him through the salty surf and fished with him on the docks as the sun set. Every memory, every moment came flooding back in that instant. “It can’t be…Severo…”

Several blue pulses tore through the edge of the brick wall of an alley on the other side of the church. Bits of concrete and shale went flying out onto the street as a group of four more ragged teens flew past Pontius to join the rest of the group ahead. Two Dispatchers emerged in hot pursuit still firing. One of the pulses caught Pontius in the shoulder, and a sharp, burning pain shot down his arm. His trench coat sizzled with smoke and fused onto the bloody, charred flesh of the wound. But the brave veteran braced himself and continued on, determined to reunite with his only son amid the chaos. Tears streamed down his face. So many thoughts and emotions were flooding in through the haze, despite his wounds. So many thoughts…

“Severo!” the man shouted. “Sev!”

“Sir, we need to get you back to headquarters right now, you’re wounded and we’ve got to clean out this block!” One of the Dispatchers had rushed back to assist him.

“Get your hands off of me!”

“Sir, please listen-”

“That’s my son, you hear me? Sev!”

“The Outlanders are getting away!”

“Get the hell away from me!” Pontius charged his phase unit and shoved the boy backward into the iron fence at the front of the church.

“Sir-”

He blasted the boy straight through the chest and watched his lifeless body slump over on the sidewalk, leaving a red hot hole burnt through the bars behind him. But the district commander of the Dispatchers was too consumed with reaching his son to care anymore. It was all that mattered, and no amount of pain and no person, Outlander or Dispatcher, even Dalishkova, was about to stop him from doing so. He dug back in his coat pocket. Took another long gulp of whiskey and looked up at Severo, the boy he so loved, who was now looking back at him. A genuine frown had spread across the teen’s face. He shook his head. No.

“Severo, wait…Sev!” the man cried frantically, blinking away the blur of tears and waning sobriety as he rushed toward his son. He made it within two feet.

The last thing Pontius saw were the boy’s eyes turning white. A throbbing pain slammed through the veteran’s skull as he fell backward.

Then everything went black.

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House of Rats – Part 19

Pontius had been right all along. All that banging the captain was doing must have been to set off the bomb. Either way, Georges was dead for real now. And Pascal, the would-be hero, was not a hero at all. For all he knew, the Outlanders were already making their way into the city. Cavarice would fall because of him. Pascal, the stupid little boy from Courgent who was foolish enough to think he could ever make a difference by taking up the uniform of a Dispatcher. What the hell was I thinking? But then he began to hear a voice through the blackened haze calling out to him. An old, determined voice. One that made him believe that maybe he still had a chance to make things right.

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

“Huh…” Everything sounded like gibberish. His entire body ached. He feared he had broken or fractured several bones. And yet something about that voice set off a fire in him that caused him to want to try moving anyway. He tried popping his ears to listen more closely.

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

“I can’t…” The boy struggled to get up, feeling around him as he did so. His fingers, still too delicate for this job, brushed against the rough concrete. He reached up to the side of his head and was surprised to find another pressed right against it. Officer Bertrand. Dead. He slowly grabbed the edge of a step and shifted his weight toward the crumbling remnants of the stone railing, pulling himself closer to it so the body would slide off. His eyes were beginning to focus again now, and he saw the corpse go sliding down the rest of the staircase as he flipped himself onto his back. “I’m so sorry, Bert,” he whispered, pausing to choke back the tears before addressing the person shouting above him. “Say again?” he called out in a frail voice.

“Pascal, the alarm!” Pontius yelled from the top of the stairs. “Sound the alarm!”

“Aye, sir!” he called. With renewed strength, the young Dispatcher gathered himself as best he could and scrambled to his feet. He thanked whatever gods there were that nothing appeared to be broken, though a sharp pain shot through his left ankle with ever step. After limping to the top with some difficulty, he fell to his side and assessed the controls. Everything was still intact. He slid open a small cover on the keypad and punched in the emergency code: 4-8-1-5-1-6-2-3-4-2. A loud siren began to blare from atop the west gate of the wall along with flashing red lights that lit in a pulsing sequence over the merlons. Similar alarms would soon sound throughout the city, sending every Dispatcher on the wall to their location. Even those off-duty would be alerted from various pylons set up on street corners.

“Pascal,” Pontius leaned back, “just out of curiosity, which code did you enter?”

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

“Now that the Outlanders know we’re still alive,” the man smirked, struggling to pull himself up. “We better get the hell out of here. Quick.”

“I am so, so sorry!” Pascal whimpered.

“Save it. I’ll get you a clean discharge after the gala. You belong in school.”

“Thank you, sir. Which way should we go? Across the top of the wall?”

“Yeah, there’s a guard tower not far. We’ll need all the phase units we can snag.”

The boy wrapped Pontius’ arm around his shoulder to help the aging veteran to his feet, surveying the damage below in the courtyard. He had to admit it was far worse destruction than what his formerly drunk district commander was capable of. Most of the gas lamps had exploded with the bomb. Small fires lined the darkened street below, illuminating heaps of crushed concrete, shattered glass, and twisted rubble in their wake. Pascal recognized several pieces from the gate itself, being an off-beige color different from the wall.

He also stole a glance from behind him, back at the desert with its many greenish-colored drifts, which still appeared as calm as it had moments before the blast. The stars were still hooked, unchanged in their places, and the moon shone just as bright. But the air didn’t smell like the Sea of Helene anymore. It smelled like sulfur and twisted iron.

“Hey Pascal!” a voice called from the street below.

“Serge!” the boy shouted happily, dragging Pontius with him down the stairs. “Oh my god, you’re alive!”

“In the flesh, my friend!” Serge laughed. “Other squads are on their way.”

“Yeah, this isn’t a bad idea,” the district commander rolled his eyes.

Pascal let go of the man and bounded down the steps to embrace his friend, but something in his peripheral vision stopped him short. A dark object with a silvery glint came flying out of the shadows from the left and planted itself deep in the side of Serge’s neck. As Pascal slid to his knees, the expression on his friend’s face immediately changed from one of joy and relief to one of pure horror. He choked. A sudden flood of deep crimson squirted out of from the boy’s jugular as he fell, spitting up a spray as he went.

“NO!” Pascal screamed. He kept screaming until he was out of breath. By this time, a swarm of scrappy-looking boys and girls had descended upon them and the remaining Dispatchers with knives in hand. Some of them wore stolen phase units, and a crowd had begun to block the west gate—the only remaining exit that wouldn’t have required them to fight their way through.

“Aww, tsk, tsk,” a crackly voice echoed from the shadows where the knife had been thrown. Pascal was surprised to see a young boy with a shaved head emerge. The kid was shorter than himself with a sun-drenched complexion, clad in an oversized coat and trousers. He stunk horribly, sauntering about his ranks in such a way that no one knew what he was about to do next. Though Pascal had never before seen the boy with his own eyes, he certainly knew his name.

“Igor.”

“In the flesh!” the boy mocked, kneeling down to tear his knife from Serge’s throat. “How did you like our little stuffed chicken trick?”

“Amateur at best,” Pontius remarked, plopping down on the crumbling staircase to light up a cigarette he’d found in his trench coat pocket.

“Well if it isn’t General Pontius Proulx! Nice to meet you again. I look forward to slashing your heels and sending you crawling off into the desert sun.”

“You realize you can’t win, right? Every Dispatcher in the city is going to be here in about ten minutes. So as adorable as your whole human piñata was, you’re straight up fucked. Plus Pascal here…he’s the best on the entire force.”

“Best on the force, eh? Pretty child,” he said, kneeling down with Pascal. “Ah, yes. If you could only see the look in your eyes when I took your friend’s life. Ha! I swear, the color changed from light blue to this very deep, almost like an ocean…”

“So you want to see blue?” Pascal smiled, sparking up a pulse from his phase unit in Igor’s face. “Because it’ll be the last color you ever see, you piece of shit!” The young Dispatcher grabbed the scrappy child by the coat and jumped to his feet to drag Igor with him in the center of the circle of Outlanders that had formed inside the gate. Many of them were now holding the surviving Dispatchers at knifepoint—Conrad, Dominic, Abel, and a few others.

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

“Why not? Look at him,” the boy laughed. “Who’s the scared chicken now?”

But to his surprise, Igor only grinned. A wide, mostly-toothless grin.

“Cluck cluck!”

A series of screams, quickly silenced, rang throughout the darkened street. Pascal raised his eyes and looked around him in horror at the circle of Outlanders as they proceeded to slit the throats of every single Dispatcher they’d brought to their knees. Streams of blood gushed and splattered everywhere onto the concrete, forming pools in the golden glow of the flames that now lit Pascal’s eyes ablaze with the vengeance of a thousand suns.

But he knew it wouldn’t come, because he already felt the knife blade tight against his own throat. And at the same time, that was okay. He had made a believer out of Pontius, a man who never believed in him to begin with. Not only that, but he had finally earned the full admiration and respect of the entire Dispatchers force. Maybe being a martyr wasn’t so bad after all. It was time.

“Pontius!” he yelled, unfastening his phase unit as he felt the sharp stab of pain slice across his neck, “find your son!” And with one final motion, he hurled the device over to his district commander, surrendering the fight forever.

_______________________

Severo’s team had just begun to enter the midpoint of the tunnel from the northwest corridor when a muffled boom came from above, shaking the entire structure and loosening sand from the cracks in the walls. The young knight stopped in his tracks to halt the line. Far behind them, stalactites and rocks could be heard breaking off from the cavern ceiling and smashing to the floor. A chorus of voices cried out beyond the bend as shuffling footsteps raced to keep up with the rest of the group.

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

The knight rushed back through the man-made corridor and turned the bend into the cave. He found Arturo, a child of twelve years, his legs crushed beneath an avalanche of rocks. The biggest had pinned the back of his right thigh above the knee. A small patch of blood was quickly pooling around the site, a broken white bone jutting out through the skin. No way the boy was getting out of here.

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

“Don’t you dare lie to me Severo!” he grabbed the knight’s cloak. “Oh god, it hurts!”

“Help, back here!” Trapped voices called out from behind the pile of rocks, which had cut off access to the adjoining cavern. A half-circle of Outlanders gathered behind the young knight, ready to assist if they could. Severo wasn’t yet used to it, but he was their leader down here. Whichever choices he made in the next few seconds were crucial. Steeling himself, he gazed back apologetically at the crowd, all of whom looked as if they expected the worst. He felt another tug at his cloak.

“It’s okay,” the boy assured him. “I’m ready to go home.”

Severo removed the silver amulet from around his neck and pressed it between Arturo’s palms as he took the boy’s head and began to recite the Pinnacle, the most sacred of Dalishkova prayers. To his amazement, the group of boys and girls behind him began to join in the recitation of verses, even those trapped in the next cavern over. It was a strange thing to hear. He had never revealed himself to any of the Outlanders aside from Quentin, and whenever he did pray, he always made sure it was whispered. Yet they joined in with him all the same, as if they had been doing so for years. By the end of the prayer, Arturo had sunk his tiny head with a smile and died.

The young Dalishkova opened his eyes and gazed back upon the group with confusion.

“How did you all know those verses?”

“Olivier stole your prayer book and copied down some so we’d all have something to read,” Emilie admitted. “We shared it with each other over the past couple months and started having meetings in the east junction where we read it aloud. The Dalishkova faith comforts us…will you teach us more?”

Severo felt his blood start to boil as he rose to his feet. “You shouldn’t be reciting things you don’t understand!” he snapped.

“Please?” the girl pleaded. “We want to know about the Salt God.”

“Why? You went rummaging through my room. This was an undercover job! None of you were supposed to know I was Dalishkova!” the knight yelled. “Do you have any idea what will happen if they discover I’ve been found out?”

“It’s not like we mind,” the girl shrugged. “As long as your personal mission doesn’t endanger any of us. We just want to know there’s hope. Igor’s robbed us of most of it these days.” Several of the boys around her muttered words of agreement. “About time we had a competent leader with us. That is why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Severo should lead!” one of the boys in the back said loudly. “Yeah!” others chimed in.

“Look,” the knight said, “I cannot discuss any particulars of my mission with you. If you want to know the Dalishkova religion, fine. But that’s all I can offer. I am in no position to serve as your leader.”

“Just tell us one thing,” the girl demanded. “Can you help us get rid of Igor?”

Severo shot her an annoyed glance. “There’s work to be done!” he insisted. “I’ll need some of you to stay behind. Emilie, you’re in charge of the group going back to the villa.”

“What?!”

“Just do as I say! You, you, and you two,” he pointed to several boys and girls. “Start pulling the rocks from the top of the pile and work your way down to free the others from the cavern and head home. Igor’s going to get half of us killed and I’m not letting him sacrifice anybody on my side. Some of you will have to survive in the catacombs below. Don’t worry, I’ll send rations of food.”

“But-”

“Don’t argue with me Emilie, just do it!”

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

Severo left her behind and turned back for the tunnel, listening with pride as she began barking out orders to the boys under her watch. He always had faith that she would make a great leader someday, though it took a bit longer than he expected for her to take up the mantle. Then again, the girls in the Outlanders gang were outnumbered by the boys four-to-one, and there were comparatively few boys comfortable with the idea of a girl taking charge. Still, Severo saw this as a sign of hope. If he could work to unite the Outlanders behind the scenes even after having revealed himself as a stranger to them, it would make it far easier when it came time to appoint Max as their new leader.

Severo’s group, now thirteen in all, advanced through the tunnel in relative silence. Thoughts of dread consumed the young knight as to what might be happening on the wall above. No doubt every Dispatcher in the city had been summoned to secure the site. Igor would only have a small window of time in which to storm through the gate before the chances of his team making it to the safe house dropped significantly. That was assuming of course that the bomb even made a single dent in the concrete and steel-reinforced door.

It had taken two extra phase units to construct the device than they previously thought, which only left a total of six to be used for the ensuing firefight. In addition to that, the Outlanders were untrained on Dispatcher equipment and thus less accurate and more prone to the effects of recoil. All of it seemed a fool’s errand from the outset. And despite Severo’s best attempts to dissuade their young leader from following through with the plan, he had charged into it headfirst anyway.

The knight also worried about the success of his own group in getting out of the Barreau District. Security would not be of major concern upon exiting the tunnel, but the safe house was located mere blocks from Rue D’Or, the main street which ended at the west gate. That meant they still risked running into Dispatcher squads making their way to the site. Of course Igor hadn’t thought any of this through because he was so hell-bent on exacting his revenge. How many Dispatchers were dead, and how many Outlanders? Had any civilians been caught on the crossfire? Would either group make it to safety? Severo grabbed hold of his prayer amulet and repeated the Oath to will away any thoughts of failure. I am a Knight of the Dalishkova Order, he reminded himself.   

Finally, they neared the end of the tunnel. The knight halted his group ten feet from the door and stepped forward to check the lock. The indicator light above the wheel was still red, which meant no one had yet opened it from the other side. He withdrew a moment to set the gas lamp on the floor before turning the wheel. That was when he realized he’d forgotten one crucial thing. The knock sequence.

Severo and his group of Outlanders swung open the door, only to be greeted by the sound of charging phase units pointed directly in their faces. The young knight’s heart sunk to his stomach.

“Hello, boys!” the leader smirked. Edmond. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

“Oh no, I think this is long overdue. Be a good lad and get down on your knees.”

“No,” Severo held his ground, even as the second lieutenant fired up a blue pulse in his palm.

“I won’t ask again.”

“In case you boys hadn’t noticed, there are bigger things to worry about. Igor strapped a bomb to Captain Georges and marched him into the west gate-”

“Oh, we know,” Antoine cut him off. “The private channels are all screaming about it. Don’t worry. Your friends will be dealt with soon enough. As for the lot of you, you’re coming down to the station with us to spend the night in a nice cozy, brand new cell. Compliments of Mayor La Cour.”

“On what charges?”

“Theft of Dispatcher equipment, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, aiding and abetting a known criminal…talking back to an officer, to name a few,” Isaac pointed out. “We’ll let the judge decide the rest.”

“We haven’t a single phase unit amongst us, nor did anyone in this group conspire to build the bomb,” the knight explained. “Listen to me gentlemen, you will have your day of glory soon enough, that I can promise you. But right now, you must let us pass!”

Edmond eyed him as if he’d lost his mind. “And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m your only hope to take down Lucien.” Severo tore off his prayer amulet and tossed it to the second lieutenant, who caught it overhead and glanced down at the engravings. The boy’s eyes narrowed as he turned to consult the others in his squad, a skeptical look overcoming each of their faces. The knight held his breath. Come on, have faith.

“Can we really trust a Dalishkova?” Edmond finally asked, throwing back the amulet.

“You can trust this one,” Severo said. “Besides…I think you already know him.”

The second lieutenant immediately lowered his phase unit as the boy smiled, recognizing him now that he’d dropped the veil. Many years had passed since the days of their early childhood, and the knight feared his old friend would no longer remember him without the influence of the prayer amulet. But as the two now stood facing each other, Edmond’s eyes wide enough to pop out of his skull, Severo relished the moment. His powers had increased after all.

“Fuck me, you’re still alive!” the leader cried, pulling him into a tight embrace as Isaac and Antoine exchanged confused glances.

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

“And you! What the bloody hell happened? Last I remember, our families had boarded the ship together to head home, but when we docked, you were gone-”

“A story for another time, I’m afraid,” the knight cut him off. “What have you boys done with Quentin? He was supposed to be here to open the door.”

“Haven’t seen him,” Edmond said. He turned to his squad. “Either of you boys?” They both shook their heads. One of the Outlanders stepped forward and tugged at Severo’s sleeve.

“Sir, when we were gathering in the south junction, I overheard Igor say something about putting him on the front lines.”

“Shit!” the knight snapped. “All of you follow me, quickly!” He stepped over the threshold to lead the group up the stairwell, but Antoine and Isaac blocked his path, raising their phase units again. Severo briefly considered occupying their minds to force them aside, but thought better of it. There was no more time to waste on getting to the safe house. Either they broke through now, or they would be caught by another squad.

“Just where the hell do you think you’re off to?” Antoine asked.

“Both of you let him go, he’s on our side!” Edmond insisted. “Unless you want trouble with the district commander.”

Isaac looked incredulous. “What are you going to do, report us?”

“Are you defying an order?” The second lieutenant powered up his phased unit. “Trust me. Let them pass.”

“Yes, sir,” Antoine replied through clenched teeth and stood aside with Isaac.

“Thank you.” Severo nodded and removed the amulet, placing it in Edmond’s hands as his group bounded up the crumbling stairwell ahead of him. “Here…for luck.”

“Most Dispatchers don’t take kindly to the Dalishkova,” the boy sighed. “I probably shouldn’t be seen with this.”

“Then don’t. But I want you to hold onto it awhile.”

“I’ll keep it somewhere safe,” Edmond assured him. “Whatever you’re doing, Sev…be careful.”

“I will. Godspeed, old friend,” the knight squeezed his shoulder.

“Godspeed.”

Severo turned and rushed up the stairs as quickly as he could. By the time his group made it onto the street, they could already hear the sound of discharging phase units coupled with screams far off in the distance. Some of the younger children became frightened. The knight halted them at the corner and surveyed the rest of the block to be sure no one had seen them. Directly across the way stood a dark, crumbling office building with a broken fire escape ladder to the side which led down to a fenced-in alleyway. Barreau Orphanage. Much as he wished he could drop off the most vulnerable of his group now, it would raise far too many questions. But at least now he knew where to send the letter to Max.

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

They rounded the next alley to the left and made haste for the safe house.

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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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