Night Of The Wolf – Part 23

Severo froze. Every instinct of training within him told the young knight not to answer, though the homesick child somewhere deep inside was begging him to. He had buried that side of himself years ago out of necessity. And yet something about that man’s voice brought it all screaming back to the surface like the false-fleshed body which had served as his corpse. He had done his best to avoid such feelings on the night of the attack, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before his father managed to track him down. Pontius.

“You are my son…are you not?”

Shit. There was no avoiding it now. Sure, he could put up a psychic barrier between them to make his father believe he wasn’t there, but that would be far more effort than it was worth. As it was, the man had lived with a substantial guilt over losing him all those years ago in Helias. Perhaps that was the weight Severo felt in his chest now. His father’s feeling…so much pain. So much anger and sorrow. So much love for his son. Tears streamed down the boy’s face, though he refused to budge.

“I am,” he answered. His heart thudded furiously in his chest.

“What the hell happened, Sev?”

“I did what I had to do,” the boy breathed. “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you had to let me go. It wasn’t safe for you-”

“Bullshit! Look at me,” Pontius cut him off. The knight hesitated. “Turn around Severo, and look at me! Don’t you dare shut me out. You used to do that when you were a kid. I won’t have it. Not now.”

“I don’t know why you think I feel ANYTHING for you!” the boy snapped, facing his father. “You never knew when to let go, even after I died! That day on the beach, when you took a picture of me holding the trout. I saw you in the distance with your camera, and though your face was hidden, I knew it was you. I could have had you thrown in prison.”

“Everyone called me insane when I told them you were still alive. Everyone! So what, am I supposed to be grateful-”

“Yes!”

“Goddamn, they’ve done quite a number on you.”

“Perhaps I’m not your son.” Severo clenched his teeth as he felt his lower lip begin to tremble. “Maybe he really did drown and wash up on the beach that day.”

“No,” Pontius shook his head. “I can’t accept that. I won’t! I saw you on the Cassius, and we were…we were heading home,” the man choked through his tears. “I was going to bring you home, Sev!”

“Don’t you understand? I was home. I made my choice, and it wasn’t you…I’m sorry.”

Pontius bit his lip and looked nervously about the room, avoiding his son’s stone cold gaze. Severo did not feel he owed the man anything. He was Dalishkova now, through and through, and his father was branded a permanent enemy of Helias. For years, Pontius had completely cut him off from his mother and denied him of his true purpose. He had kidnapped him and brought him to live in Cavarice, where life was miserable and devoid of freedom. Anyone who spoke out against the city’s oligarchy faced imprisonment or death. And while the Dalishkova in Helias were certainly strict, it was nowhere near as bad as living beneath the constant smokescreen of Viktorium’s capital city.

“At least tell me what you’re doing here, huh?” Pontius sighed.

“I’m on a mission. That’s all I can tell you. Don’t worry, I won’t get in your way.”

“I’ll try to stay clear too,” the man nodded. “How’s the training going?”

“I’ve completed Five of the Seven Trials. After this, I’ll be returning to Helias for the final Two.”

“Impressive,” his father raised an eyebrow. “I know those aren’t easy for initiates.”

“They are difficult, but…I’ve so far been at the top of my class.” Severo relented as a sudden sympathetic feeling began to overcome him. This was a man who, despite his many faults, clearly loved his son. Perhaps it was time to put the past away.

“Good…that’s great,” Pontius smiled. “I’m proud of you. I mean that.” The two again avoided looking one another in the eye, perhaps out of fear of what they might find if they did. The gravitational pull in Severo’s chest created such a feeling of tension, he wished he could slice it with a sword. Still, he knew that even once they had both left this room, they would each carry a piece of it with them, a sense of connection and longing to continue their relationship from the moment of lost time in which they’d abandoned it. “Well hey, I should probably leave you to it,” the former district commander said, moving for the door.

“Pontius!” Severo stopped him. The knight immediately realized he sounded a bit more desperate than he’d intended, but at least his father turned back. “Just…take care of yourself, all right?”

His father beamed. “You too, kid.”

“Maybe when this is all over…”

“Yeah…tell you what, you complete those Seven Trials, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Deal,” the boy grinned.

He threw up a psychic wall to render himself invisible from his father’s field of vision, though stayed just long enough to watch the man leave. Pontius had earned one final good memory of his son. That smile, Severo knew, would carry him through and become a source of refuge, of true belief that the prayer amulet could never have provided. For gone, now, was the pervasive sense of gravity in the knight’s chest. He surveyed the room one final time, secure in the knowledge of what to do next.

“Don’t worry, Igor,” he whispered. “It’s almost time to rest.”

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

Advertisements

Night Of The Wolf – Part 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought I might find you here.”

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

Night Of The Wolf – Part 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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’.

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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.”

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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…

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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.”

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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.

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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.

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>

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.

<<PREVIOUS PAGENEXT PAGE>>