Night Of The Wolf – Part 14

Max and Lucien stood as the young men in black surrounded them and prepared to escort them out of the Morcourt building. The young Barreau elder did his best to keep pace with the mayor and Constance in case they exchanged any further words. What he’d heard thus far was troubling. He’d known for some time that Mayor Nicolas was not as in control as he seemed, but he had no idea things were this bad. Even if he had managed to secure funds from the wealthiest families in Cavarice at his fundraiser the previous night, there was little doubt Constance Renou would discover the paper trail and cut him off. The man was quite literally a slave to her whims, and with that kind of power, there was no telling what would happen to their way of life in the city, or if there were some manner of escaping it.

The groups parted ways at the top of the stairwell, where the Dispatchers guided them to the right and down a corridor which led to the back exit, though Max was able to catch a bit of their conversation before the turn.

“We’ll tell them we have several suspects in custody,” Constance said quietly. “That should give it time to blow over while General Rodin investigates further. Don’t make any ridiculous comments and for god’s sake, don’t respond to any questions you don’t have answers to. Calmly reassert that the situation is under control. That should put their fears to rest. Not like you’re particularly good at that. Lucky for you, I’m still here to save face.”

The power flickered as they made their way past an assortment of offices to the top of the back stairwell. For a moment, Max felt a strange sense of vertigo. He looked over to Lucien, who also seemed to wince momentarily. Not that he cared if the boy was all right; he’d been coming close to wishing a very painful death on his old friend in recent hours, but the fact he felt it too was important. What seemed more odd was that the Dispatchers escorting them did not even flinch at the occurrence. They did not power on their phase units, nor did they pause to check anomaly readings. What sort of Dispatchers are they? Max wondered. Even private squads did that much to ensure the safety of their clients, and he’d never encountered a group who wore black coats instead of the standard-issue beige. Still, he thought it best not to question. They looked a bit more temperamental than others he had seen, and he wasn’t about to do anything to cause concern.

Upon arriving at the back exit, the Dispatchers shoved them through the set of double doors and locked it behind them without saying a word. Lucien looked to Max with a slight smirk on his face, the kind he always had whenever he’d got them through a bit of mischief and survived to tell the tale. The back alley was vacant and dark, save for a single fading light atop the doors.

“What?” Max asked.

“Don’t you see? No cars waiting. He had no plan of escape after all. He would just as well have let the dogs overrun this city, and himself with it. He knows he’s weak. And I know you’ve thought highly of him, Max-”

“Let’s not go there. Not after last night.”

“Point is, if the leader of Cavarice is weak, so are we. You take what you can get from him before he gets crushed.”

“After what we heard at that meeting, it appears I wouldn’t be getting very much. If I were to sign his ridiculous adoption papers, I’d go straight down with him. No thanks.”

“That’s where Constance comes in-”

“Constance!” Max laughed. “She’s the one tying his hands! Are you really that stupid as to stake our futures on the woman who’s played a role in orchestrating our misery? That’s exactly why we can’t work together anymore. We’re clearly on different sides. And I’m not going to stand here and listen…”

The elder stopped mid-sentence as he caught wind of the woman herself beginning to address the crowd of eager reporters around the far side of the building. His eyes went wide as he looked to Lucien, and not a second later, the two boys were dashing through the alleyway back to the main street. A chain-link fence stood in their way, which they scaled with ease and hit the ground running. By the time they reached the front entrance, the crowd had filled the steps until there was no more room, forcing the rest of those who had previously clamored for space out into the street. The two boys took up a position near the back of the throng and listened intently to the woman’s speech as she stood at the podium.

“Yesterday, the west gate of our city’s wall fell under attack by a group of nomadic hostiles known to us as the Outlanders, a street gang which our previous administration had exiled. They managed to breach the wall, followed by a brief firefight with our Dispatchers. As of now, we have several of the culprits in custody and any remaining threat has been eliminated. I’ve been informed that General Rodin is conducting the most thorough investigation possible into these events. Rest assured, we will not stop until we learn who masterminded this vile attack and how it was made possible.

“That said, I personally reviewed the guard schedule for last night, and it seems that our Dispatchers on the wall were ill-equipped to adequately handle the threat, and Mayor La Cour was well aware of this. Two squads were stationed at the gate when there should have been six, plus two commanders to oversee their duties. Several extra squads were forced to abandon their posts in the Metropolies to fend off invaders who, quite frankly, should never have gotten as far as the wall. Furthermore, it’s been brought to my knowledge that District Commander Pontius has been placed on administrative leave pending a formal inquiry of his actions in response to the attack, which I’m told were questionable.

“Of course, the failures of Nicolas La Cour’s leadership at this point could not be made more apparent. Events such as these threaten to divide the very fabric of the fine society we all hold so dear right here in Cavarice. La Cour would have you be afraid, because he himself is afraid. For too long, he has cowered in the face of opposition both political and domestic, and your city has suffered for it. But now more than ever, it is not the time for fear. It is a time for unity and progress! As a businesswoman serving on the city council and as the director of Viktorium-France Transit, I assure you I can see to that. Because I believe in the strength of Cavarice, its enduring prosperity, and most of all, its people. That is why I’m proud to say that in the upcoming elections, I will be campaigning to serve this city as your mayor. Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ve taken up my allotted time. Mayor La Cour will be speaking next to answer any questions you might have,” she said, backing away from the podium with the slyest of smiles. Nicolas, meanwhile, approached behind her looking white as a sheet.

“I don’t believe it,” Max shuddered. His heartbeat was racing as he gazed over the crowd, seeing flash after flash of camera bulbs firing amid the shouting reporters as the mayor struggled to appease them. Between each stuttered response, the man only dug himself deeper, generating a chorus of boos from the audience. Constance had already asserted her presence and, it seemed, solidified herself in the hearts and minds of the Cavarician crowds. Many were begging for her to speak again.

“I know, I can’t bear to watch either,” Lucien sighed. “Inspiring woman, though.” Max rolled his eyes and backed away, heading for the subway station. “Where are you going? Don’t you want to see how this ends?”

“I already know how it ends!” the elder called. “I’m going home. Have fun. Maybe I’ll catch you at Verdevale.”

As Max plodded his way down the steps and descended through the shadows back to the station platform, he couldn’t help but feel as defeated as Mayor La Cour. The smokescreen, he knew, would continue for as long as it had to. Of course there was little doubt the welcome gala would continue as planned. Constance still had her reputation to uphold, if she were to have any hope of winning in the coming elections. And unless a more serious, well-rounded contender emerged into the political sphere by that time, there was also little doubt she would win.

The elder checked his pocket watch. There was still about ten minutes left until the last train arrived. He’d intended to leave with Lucien, but he was not about to finish listening to what little remained of La Cour’s dignity slipping away into the cold abyss of the night—not as if he had much choice. The speakers throughout the subway system blared the main public news channel twenty four hours, seven days a week unless there was an emergency. Max did his best to tune it out, shuffling over to a nearby magazine rack to pick up a newspaper. But before he could extend a hand to pick out that morning’s issue, a calm voice spoke behind him.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Yes?” Max turned around to see a young man, thirty or so, with short disheveled hair and a brown waistcoat, puffing away on a pipe. In his left hand was a notepad, an ink pen in his right. “Oh, bloody hell!”

“Might I buy a moment of your time?”

“No! Bugger off. I’ve got a train to catch. Besides, there’s plenty of action upstairs. Isn’t that what you journalists are here for?”

“I’m not sure if you’re aware of my reputation,” the man smirked, stuffing his notepad away to remove the pipe from his mouth. “But let’s just say that if I were to show my face up there, I would likely be arrested. As it so happens, I’ve also got a train to catch. I was wondering if I might get your story first, since I know an outlaw when I see one. ‘Always bet on the underdog,’ as I say.”

“I’m sorry, who the hell are you?”

“Benoit Laurent,” the man smiled, extending a hand. “Author of the Brief History of Viktorium articles. Rabble rouser, no-good hack journalist, and whatever other name they choose to call me by. I prefer ‘Agent of Truth’ myself, though I’m afraid Andre Casanov is the only one on public radio who gives me such credit. And you are?”

“Max Ferrier,” the elder replied.

“Nice to meet you, Max. What do you say we get out of here?”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 13

“This is much better,” Lucien quipped, gazing around the lobby they had toured just the previous day.

“Yes, well enjoy it while you can,” Pierre said, adjusting his vest and suit jacket. “At the rate things are going, the press will have us all lynched before dawn. This way, please.” He gestured for them to follow and led them up through the main foyer all the way past the pillars, this time to the left. On the previous day, they had taken a right into the main hall, where Mayor La Cour had bored the Barreau boys half to death with his meticulous seating arrangements for the welcome gala. So much had changed since then, and yet it remained the same. But to Max, Morcourt Hall seemed to have taken on a much darker tone in light of recent events. He could feel it permeating the air like the hot desert sun back in the Outlanders’ villa that had forced the sweat from his pores and left his clothes clinging to him like static soon afterward.  It was a feeling of disgust, of something in the air left unresolved, and the shadow of what was yet to follow.

The young elder did his best to stay one step ahead of Lucien on the way to wherever Pierre was leading them so the boy didn’t cross into his peripherals. He hated being reminded of the fact that it was him—not Bernard—who had accompanied him to this meeting. And yet still, perhaps it would afford him the unique opportunity to read his old friend and plot his next move. Lucien had thus far remained one step ahead of Max, and god only knew how far those slender hooks of his extended. The lanky boy sprung up beside him soon enough. Max rolled his eyes but said nothing.

Pierre took a right around the next corner, leading them both up a side stairwell and through another corridor past the Green Room and around the rotunda balcony to a set of double doors on the right lined in gold, art deco-styled trim. He produced a skeleton key from inside his jacket and unlocked one side, gesturing for them both to move through as he opened it. Max and Lucien walked through to find themselves in a rather lavishly decorated office study. Mayor La Cour sat behind a desk at the far end surrounded by six of his cabinet officials. All of them wore grim expressions on their faces, the likes of which belied an even darker tone than the mahogany shades present in their surroundings. None of them acknowledged the two boys, save for La Cour himself, who at least made an effort to feign enthusiasm.

“Ah, gentlemen!” he exclaimed, forcing a smile. “Glad you both could make it. Please, have a seat.”

Lucien shoved his way ahead of Max and plopped down in one of the two remaining vacant chairs in the semicircle, but the young elder moved for the large circular window behind the desk to keep watch over the roaring crowds below. The office was positioned above the main entrance of Morcourt, so one could see everything from up here. None of it looked pretty. As it was, much of the glass had already been clouded by a smattering of rotten vegetables hurled from below that slid down, obstructing a good portion of the view. Mayor LaCour squeaked backward in his rickety chair.

“Maxwell, would you like to sit?”

“I’m fine with standing,” the elder crossed his arms.

“Please,” the man glared at him. A large tomato suddenly splattered against the window in front of Max’s face, and that was all the encouragement he needed.

“Right.”

“Pierre, can we close the curtains, please?!” La Cour huffed, running a hand through his silvery hair.

“Of course sir!” The butler rushed over, pulling the large crimson drapes shut. More vegetables came flying as he did. Max felt his heart skip a beat with every thump against the glass, though in surveying the circle of faces he and Lucien now found themselves a part of, no one else seemed particularly on edge. Even the mayor himself seemed more content to pore over a newspaper than to address the crippling silence taking hold of the room. For several moments, the only sounds one could hear were the old grandfather clock ticking in the far left corner and the din of the angry crowd below. La Cour rustled through his newspaper, though he at last broke the silence after throwing it down on his desk in annoyance. Max glanced over at the headline:

OUTLANDERS ATTACK WEST GATE, INVADE CITY; MULTIPLE CASUALTIES, SEVERAL DEATHS SUSPECTED

“These crowds get their first whiff of blood in the afterlife and suddenly it’s anarchy. But of course we all know this is not the afterlife,” he sighed. “I want to know who leaked this.”

“Probably that hack journalist, what’s-his-name,” Vice Mayor Beatrice Castile thought aloud.

“Benoit Laurent,” grumbled one of the other old councilmen.

“That’s the one,” La Cour nodded. “I’d love to hang his body upside down from the roof!”

“Does it really matter?” Louis, his aging, timid-voiced accountant sighed. “There’s no coming back from this. We’re finished. Might as well start swallowing the cyanide pills.”

“I prefer arson. Easier to hide,” Beatrice added.

“Now stop it, all of you!” the mayor snapped, rising from his chair. “I called you here to help me formulate a plan, not sit around like a bunch of corpses waiting to desiccate! Christ, you all look as if you might croak at any moment, save of course for these two young gentlemen from the Barreau District. What we need right now are answers, because those savages decided to attack the city wall on the week before my welcome gala! You cannot tell me that doesn’t reek of suspicion.”

“All due respect,” Louis shrugged, “but holing yourself up in Morcourt doesn’t exactly bode well for your public appearance, either. The crowds are already screaming for blood, and even if you do choose to address them now, you’ll face assassination. Also, this is not the most secure location and we all know it. There are no underground tunnels or secret passageways leading in or out. Captain Gerard and his teams can only hold back the mob for so long before they break down the bloody doors, and when that happens-”

“Oh just go and kill yourself now if you’re that faithless!” La Cour cut him off. “Don’t you think I’ve already accounted for that?  We’ve got tight security and armored cars waiting out back. I pray we don’t have to use them, but there’s a clear path for the Serreines province should it become necessary. I plan to address the crowds.”

“That’s suicide,” Beatrice muttered.

“And just what are we to tell the new arrivals as everyone starts to riot here, then? Someone’s got to speak to them sooner or later! I’d prefer not to cancel an event with weeks worth of planning. We must encourage ongoing positive morale in the capital city. Besides, General Rodin assured me that investigative reports concerning the attack on the wall are forthcoming.”

“In that case, sir,” his publicist chimed in, “perhaps it is best we postpone the celebrations until a definitive conclusion is reached. They’ll be more apt to trust you.”

“I’m not calling it off!”

“Sir, I didn’t say-”

“What’s the point of postponing? Either our own citizens riot in the streets, or we have a bunch of rats running around causing all manner of mischief because they haven’t a clue what to do with themselves! I want this contained, and quickly. God forbid anyone else dies!”

“Sir, if you’ll allow me to finish,” his publicist sighed. “Might I suggest the possibility of moving the gala to your summer villa at the Verdevale Province Air Field? It’s not too far from the city. There is more space and it’s an open atmosphere, not as congested. People will feel safer, perhaps more welcome there. The trains will arrive on site as well. We could plan for fireworks.”

“What about the market right next door? Security will be more dispersed than I’m comfortable with, especially after the loss of several Dispatcher squads. And that still doesn’t solve the problem of what to tell these goddamn reporters!” La Cour grumbled, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Anyone else want to offer some bright ideas? Max?”

“Sorry, what?” The elder had caught himself zoning out as he rested his chin on his knuckles. Now that all eyes were trained on him with the expectation of an answer, everything went blank. The political climate in the Metropolies was of little concern to him compared with the loss of Quentin the previous night and the survival of his boys. He had his suspicions of course regarding Lucien’s possible role in the attack, but that’s all they were. If he was going to prove his old friend was in fact a traitor, he would need evidence, and that would take time. At least he knew the La Cour family might be on his side, given that the mayor favored him enough to show him adoption papers the previous night—an offer he’d refused, though still struggled with. That’s when he came up with a plan. Stand your ground. Don’t let Lucien know you were thinking twice. “Why are you asking me for answers? That’s what your advisors are for.”

“I thought I might use the two of you as field consultants to gauge public opinion,” the mayor admitted, pacing around his desk. “Both of you have lived here since before I was elected. You remember what Cavarice used to be, what it stands for, and what it should be. When I started my campaign, I built it on the premise of change. A return to the glory days, if you will-”

“First off, cut the shit!” Max snapped. “I can tell you right now that nobody wants to hear it after last night’s attack, least of all me! The people are angry because you’ve lost control. Any idiot could see that. It’s time to stop lamenting the good old days and focus on calming them down before your approval rating sinks any lower. You said reports from General Rodin are coming, yeah?”

“Yes, but-”

The mayor was suddenly cut off by a loud bang from across the room as a squad of Dispatchers in black leather trench coats stormed through the ornate double doors with such force that the top hinge on one of them broke off. Everyone jumped out of their skin while Max and Lucien bolted out of their chairs and stood at the ready, exchanging worried glances. The elder grit his teeth. He hadn’t thought to bring a phase unit, and considering his brief encounter with Antoine the previous night, there was no telling what this squad’s motives were.

But rather than apprehend anyone, the young men in black quickly stepped aside to make way for a pale blonde woman in a green miniskirt and matching business jacket. A small hat with a fishnet veil sat atop her bob of wavy, golden locks. She was beautiful, and yet exuded a presence much like a destructive force of nature. Her large, blue eyes seethed with hurricane fury, her pouty lips twisted in a bright red lipstick snarl that looked like a rose about to explode. And explode she did.

“Would you mind telling me just what the HELL is going on?!” the woman roared, charging up to the desk.

“Constance!” La Cour choked nervously. “Good of you to join us.”

“Not so good for you, I’m afraid!” she spat. “I was gone for a mere two days securing business deals in the Falvarre province and I come home to rioting in the streets! Apparently, I can’t leave you alone for five minutes without holding your hand like a bloody child.”

“Please, if you’ll allow me to-”

“News travels fast, by the way,” she snapped her fingers, prompting one of her Dispatchers to step over and toss a newspaper on the man’s desk with yet another distressing headline from the Falvarre Daily:

TERROR IN CAVARICE; OUTLANDERS RETURN, WEST WALL BREACHED

“As I recall, I’ve told you to have more security stationed at the west gate. This should have been addressed immediately, before you had a crowd of angry people ready to break down your doors!” she huffed. “By the way, what is this riffraff doing here?” She gestured back to Max and Lucien. The young elder’s heart was thudding in his chest at the sheer power of her presence. So this is why La Cour backs out of confrontation.

“I invited them as advisors on public opinion, as they have experience-”

“Ha!” Constance chuckled. “Unless you’re bloody blind, you already know how the public perceives you. Take a long, lovely gander,” she stomped around the back of his desk and flung the crimson curtain wide open again, “at THAT! Ah, the sweet smell of dissension. So many angry citizens, fed up with the stale rhetoric of their tired old leader. As it so happens, the timing could not be more perfect.”

La Cour balked. “What are you talking about?”

“My candidacy for mayor, of course,” she turned back with a grin. “The people are crying out for justice. They need a proper leader to ensure their protection against terrorists both foreign and domestic. And with election season right around the corner, what better time than now to announce my campaign?”

“You wouldn’t dare!” the man bellowed. “Not with your conflicts of interest.”

“Oh, I have my ways, darling,” Constance assured him. “The beauty of it is that it would hardly matter. You’ve managed to create one blunder after another, to the point your approval rating has gone down the shitter. Meanwhile, my stocks continue to rise, and you…well, without my help and your current title, you’re one step away from bankruptcy, aren’t you? Now, if you’re quite done sitting in your office sulking with the rest of these crusty old heaps, we’ve got damage control to address. And not to worry. I’ll be speaking ahead of you. And lest you make any more of a mockery of our administration, my Dispatchers are here to keep things tidy. Any questions?”

“You’re a real bitch,” La Cour muttered.

“Proud of it. Shall we?” Constance hooked her arm around his and gestured to her private squad. “And show our little ‘public advisors’ to the door, will you? They’re stinking up the hall.”

“Of course, ma’am,” the captain answered. “Let’s go, you two.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 12

The last rays of the sun were fading from the sky in greenish hues mixed with streaks of yellow as it broke through dissipating rain clouds. Here or there, a slight hint of orange could be seen left over from the afternoon hours during which the Viktorium sky would have been indistinguishable from that of Earth. In some ways, Max hated that he knew better. There was a certain satisfaction that came with remaining ignorant and ‘fresh off the train’, so to speak. Corruption didn’t exist within the minds of new arrivals to this world. Everything they saw during their first impression was exactly what the Parisian elite wanted them to see—another reason Max loathed Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome galas. It was psychological manipulation. And considering the events of the previous night, there was no doubt plenty of damage control to be done.

The young elder took a seat out on the crumbling front steps of the orphanage and lit a rolled cigarette he’d managed to snag from beneath Florian’s bunk. The air had warmed a bit since early that morning, giving way to a gentle breeze. But while the temperature throughout the Barreau block was nice for comfort, it also made the arid stench of raw sewage and algae from the canal more apparent. Max held his nose as he inhaled the tobacco flavor and promptly fell into a coughing fit. He never smoked often and certainly wasn’t about to start now, however he felt this particular situation called for it—the telegram concerning a private meeting with La Cour had been directly addressed to the orphanage elders. This meant that until he could get the official paperwork amended to include Bernard, he was still stuck with Lucien. This ought to be interesting.

“Where is that prick, anyway,” he whispered to himself, checking his pocket watch. They were set to meet at six o’clock on the dot. It was nearly six twenty. Of course, he should have expected this. The ever-so-stubborn traitor he once considered a friend had insisted on moving down the block right away. And without proper furnishings or accommodation, he didn’t expect Lucien—or the boys under his watch—had gotten much sleep. A childish move. But much as Max remained angry, he still had to pity them. They were running blind after all, following a young man they didn’t know under the promise of a better future. It was no better than what La Cour was doing.

Max stood up and leaned over the left balustrade to spit, catching sight of several red spots on the sidewalk which had stained the pavement the day before. His heart sank. Quentin’s blood. A crazy thought then struck him. Rumors had persisted around the Metropoliès in recent days following the publication of journalist Benoit Laurent’s articles on the history of Viktorium. Supposedly at one time before the exile of DuPont, there existed cloning machines. All one had to do, the story went, was provide a blood or hair sample on a glass collection plate. Within seconds, a perfect identical clone would be generated out of thin air. It all sounded laughably farfetched. What would be the purpose of it all? Still, Max couldn’t help but wonder if some part of it were true. And in that case, it would hurt no one if he perhaps decided to collect a small sample of-

“Evening, rat!” Lucien called from up the block, snapping the young elder out of his daydream.

“You’re late!” Max called. He inhaled one last drag of the cigarette and tossed it over the balustrade into a tangle of unkempt bushes. “I told you to be here at six o’ clock sharp.”

“Have you really turned to smoking?” Lucien chuckled, ignoring him. “Filthy habit, Maximiliens.”

“It’s Maxwell!” the boy seethed.

“Oh, right. I forgot one of your parents was English. Aren’t you just the paragon of virtue and propriety. What’s wrong? Haven’t had your tea and crumpets this morning?”

The elder rolled his eyes and stepped down to the sidewalk to meet him. “Are you finished?”

“On the contrary. I’m just getting started,” Lucien grinned.

“Let’s get this over with.”

“First off,” the lanky boy stopped him to reach into his inner jacket pocket, “I believe a peace offering is in order.” He produced a small flask engraved with a coat of arms topped by a nude woman, a crest which looked strangely familiar to Max. The bottle was oval in shape and made of green-stained glass. The elder took it without hesitation.

“Is that Lady Adelaide’s brand of absinthe?!”

“It is,” Lucien smiled.

“I’ve scoured every shop on Rue d’Auseil looking for this! Where did you find it?”

“Not telling. Trade secrets. Although I can tell you that there’s plenty more where it came from.”

Max narrowed his eyes and unscrewed the cap from the flask, giving it a sniff to be sure Lucien wasn’t bluffing. After all, he’d spent the previous day lying through his crooked teeth about a great many things. Who knew if this was any different? The elder wasn’t about to chance the first sip, and there was only one way to be sure it wasn’t poisoned.

“Take a swig,” he said, shoving it back in Lucien’s hand.

“Seriously? You know I play dirty Max, but I’m not that level of scum.”

“Then you should have no problem with the first swallow. You said it’s a peace offering, yeah? A gift, essentially. So if that bottle is now mine, you’d better fucking oblige.”

“Very well. Since you insist on being rude.” With that, Lucien proceeded to tip the bottle and chug the entire contents until it was empty. He then hurled it at the crumbling orphanage steps, where it shattered into a million, green, fairy-like pieces. “Satisfied?!” he snapped, storming off down the block. Max charged after him.

“You son of a bitch, my boys could cut their feet on that!”

“Really?” Lucien whirled around. “Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“Other than you showing up to Morcourt as a stinking drunk, though I doubt that was really absinthe if you can chug it like that.”

“At least you know it wasn’t poison. We had to dilute it, by the way. I lied. Only one more bottle left. I was going to share it with you, but you can never be happy over anything Max, now can you? Don’t worry, I’ll save the rest for celebration when you get adopted.”

“Funny.”

“You ought to join me in my new revolution, you know. A fresh start would do you good.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“Not any more than anyone else in this toxic shithole.”

“I’m sure that sort of attitude will persuade a lot of people to join your cause,” Max rolled his eyes. They continued down the block at a brisk pace. “How well did you sleep last night, by the way? Couldn’t have been all that comfortable.”

“I slept like a free man. So did the rest of them.”

“It’s been my observation that the homeless don’t sleep so well.”

“Ah, that’s where you underestimate me. Do you honestly believe I haven’t been planning my exodus for weeks? You should stop in sometime. We’re set up just fine at the old library with all the furnishings and provisions we need.”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Are you sure about that? Plenty of books you might be interested in checking out.”

“I do hope you have a permit for setting up a new orphanage before city inspection throws you out on the street. What the hell is your game, anyway?”

“Sorry. You forfeited your right to that knowledge when you held a knife to my eye. At this point, you’re the one being uncivil. I’m giving you every opportunity to join me in the new world I’m constructing-”

“Oh shut the hell up!” The elder cut him off and shoved him against the wall. They had reached the end of the block, just outside the narrow alleyway where Max’s group had been arrested the previous night. It still stunk of garbage and excrement. “Stop pretending you did me any favors, you certainly never did Quentin any! You hated him since the day he arrived on our doorstep. I still have my doubts as to whether or not you were somehow involved in the attack on the west gate, so mark my words Lucien, and mark them well. If I ever, and I mean EVER find out you had ANYTHING to do with Quentin’s death, I will cut your wretched throat, do you understand me?!”

“Is that a threat?” Lucien choked beneath his iron grasp, but Max held him firm and didn’t budge.

“That’s a promise!”

“You won’t do it,” the traitor sputtered. “You haven’t the heart to kill me.”

“We’ll see.” Max drove his knee hard into the boy’s crotch. As Lucien doubled over in pain, the elder ducked fast to pummel him in the stomach several times, then clocked him across the jaw for good measure. There was an audible crack, and the would-be revolutionary hero fell to the ground writhing in agony. Served him right. “At least I have a heart. Now let’s get to Morcourt. We’re already late, so I don’t want to hear another peep out of your mouth until we’re through the front door.”

Max turned and continued on, but he only made it about three feet before Lucien dragged him backward and body slammed him sideways into a broken mass of twisted metal that lay strewn across the path—the fire escape that had formerly clung to the adjacent building. A sharp sting of pain immediately shot through the young elder’s left cheekbone, and he could feel sizable cuts across his stomach, his chest, and the back of his right forearm. Oh hell no.

Hitting back, the dark-haired boy charged low for Lucien’s waist, driving them both through the fragile concrete wall, where they plunged hard onto a basement floor several feet down and proceeded to pound the living daylights out of one another. There, each of the boys grabbed whatever they could find to continue their spat. Lucien hit Max over the head with a wrench, and Max picked up a small wooden crate and smashed it over his body. Lucien responded by throwing him into a pile of barrels and leaped onto him. From there, the fight devolved into a series of punches, kicks, biting, scratching, and every other primitive form of attack until the two at last exhausted themselves. When it was over, they lay panting side by side.

“All right,” Max panted, “we should…probably…get to Morcourt now.”

“Felt pretty good, yeah?” Lucien smirked.

“Like old times,” Max chuckled.

“We make a good tag team.”

“True,” the elder smiled, turning onto his side to face his nemesis. “But don’t think this lets you off the hook.”

Lucien sighed and extended a hand over to him. “Truce?”

“For today,” Max nodded, shaking on it as the two rose to their feet ad dusted themselves off. “I don’t expect the mayor’s company will be too impressed when they see us.”

“What’s to impress?” Lucien laughed. “We’re Barreau boys.”

Max frowned and turned away. “You’re no Barreau boy.”

After climbing out of the crumbling basement and back into the alley, the two continued on the same path they typically took through the winding alleyways, past Rue d’Auseil, Rue La Monte, and the old courthouse until they reached the end of the streetcar line. Several minutes passed until another arrived, which they rode up to the western district checkpoint and boarded a series of subway trains that led into the downtown area of the Metropolies. By the time they exited the station platform and lumbered up the stairwell into Center City directly across from Morcourt Hall, the skies had grown dark. It was already 7:15.

The streets were awash in an ocean of press coverage; journalists, photographers, radio personalities, and newsboys all lined the steps of the front entrance hoping for a piece of the action. And above them all, guarding the doors valiantly behind an array of floodlights, stood three squads of Dispatchers with phase units at ready in case anyone should be stupid enough to attempt to storm the building. Max and Lucien exchanged worried glances.

“This is madness,” the young elder sighed. “How are we supposed to get through?”

Lucien surveyed the throng a moment, peering around for an opening in the crowd. Once it seemed he found it, he pulled Max along with him.

“Come on this way, I’ve got an idea.” The lanky boy led his former friend over to the left side of the mindless sea of faces, where the congestion was considerably less dense and there was more breathing room. Mayor La Cour’s butler, Pierre, had been speaking with one of the Dispatcher squad captains off to the side, which offered them the perfect opportunity to get in to their scheduled meeting. “Hey Pierre. Pierre, you dimwit!” Lucien called, waving at him in a futile attempt to flag the man down. “Over here!” Max tore away from the boy’s grasp and dragged his arm down to stop him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” the elder hissed.

“Getting his attention!”

“By calling him a dimwit? Looks like you’ve gotten us attention all right!”

Upon catching sight of them, the captain of La Cour’s private Dispatcher squad quickly shoved Pierre behind him and charged to the edge of the steps, activating his phase unit. The bright blue flash that sparked in his palm drew a series of gasps from the crowd of frightened onlookers as their gaze fell to the two troublemakers standing at the far left side of the stairs.

“Get back!” the man roared.

“Smart,” Max scoffed.

“Wait, wait Gustav!” Pierre protested, rushing to the rescue. “These two were invited to the meeting, you must let them through!” Gustav looked back at the man as if he were insane. Pierre set a hand on the man’s wrist to encourage him to lower his guard, which he finally did. “You’ll have to excuse him,” the butler sighed. “Tensions are running high since the attack on the gate last night, as I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course we understand,” Max breathed, scowling at his former partner. “Don’t we, Lucien?”

“Not to worry,” the lanky boy smiled.

“They stink,” Gustav spat, reluctantly calling over the rest of his squad to maintain order through the break in the line while the second squad escorted the boys the rest of the way up to the front entrance. Pierre clinched his nose until they got to the door, at which point the third Dispatcher squad, facing too much tension from the impassioned crowd, lost control of the situation. An avalanche of reporters and journalists broke straight through the barricades and came barreling up the steps toward them. Gustav and his squad did their best to stop it, but it was too late. Pierre, visibly horrified, tore the skeleton key off the gold chain around his neck and unlocked the doors, shoving Max and Lucien inside.

“No, no, no, NO STOP!” he shouted at the crowd as the trio ducked through and he slammed the door shut behind them, twisting all six locks from top to bottom as a loud thump against the door made every heart in the lobby skip a beat. Phase unit fire could be heard from outside, followed by shrieks of protest as the Dispatcher squads forced the crowd backward. Before long, their voices grew pleasantly distant. There was no doubt that plenty of arrests would be made tonight. All the same, the people of Cavarice were screaming for answers, and for what it was worth, Max did not think that sitting around biding their time in Morcourt while everyone else rioted in the streets was the best course of action. Mayor La Cour should have addressed the city immediately following the attack, rather than allowing their rage to steep unchecked for an entire day. Not that it made any difference now.

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Night of the Wolf – Part 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“STOP!”

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Max…not now.”

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

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

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

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

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

The mark was present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we all good here?” Bernard asked.

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

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

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

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

“This isn’t what I wanted.”

“Perhaps it was inevitable after this morning.”

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

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

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

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

“Wrong is a matter of perception.”

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

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

“Lucien-”

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

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

“Shit,” Max closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit!”

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

“Max…it’s a body.”

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

“Careful.”

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

“You recognize the boy?”

“No. Wait. That’s Ephram!”

“Outlander?”

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

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

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

“Not the Dispatchers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did I tell you!” Bernard hissed.

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

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House of Rats – Part 13

Later that evening, the Barreau boys had gathered at Morcourt Hall to plan for the annual welcome gala with Mayor La Cour. Max always found it to be a boring affair, though the boys under his watch were more than happy to be involved in something that made them feel important for once. The mayor rambled on as he led them about the sprawling, lavishly adorned grand ballroom with one of his advisors, who took notes as they walked. Everything concerning the layout was much the same as it had been in the past year. Decor was recycled. Security checkpoints were identical. The same Dispatchers—minus Captain Georges, of course—would be attending the event. Little more than the table order of the wealthiest figures in Viktorium had been switched.

“And Miss Constance Renou will be seated here, with her longtime film director friend Giovanni Abbascia on the opposite side…let’s see…Fritz Lang will go over here. No wait, that’s not right…”

Lucien let out a long sigh beside Max. “Can’t you just feel the life slowly draining out of you with every word this man speaks?”

“I’m not sure,” the elder replied. “There’s a running tally in my mind between his words and yours. I can’t quite decide who is worse.”

“You’re seriously going to continue this nonsense?”

“You still owe Quentin an apology.”

Lucien leaned forward and tapped the boy on the shoulder as the group continued on, cupping his hand over his ear to whisper something. Quentin rolled his eyes and stomped on the elder’s foot, sending him hobbling backward into a table. As he fell, Lucien managed twist around and drag the entire cloth off, sending the vase of flowers crashing to the floor where it shattered in a million pieces. The entire group glowered with scorn.

“Good lord boy, watch your step!” the mayor snapped.

“Sorry,” the elder sighed, stepping to his feet.

La Cour turned to his advisor. “Get clean-up in here right away.”

“Yes sir.”

“Can’t blame him, but at least you tried,” Max smirked, brushing bits of glass off him.

“Yeah…still doesn’t earn me any points.”

The two caught back up with the group, lingering a few steps behind so they could speak privately whilst observing their younger subjects. It wasn’t difficult to keep an eye on everyone now since they seemed far more enthralled than their elders just to be touring the Metropoliès District. The opportunity didn’t come often for them. Still, Max resented the fact it was simply a pity move on the part of the mayor. Not like he sensed the man could do much to improve their situation; he always seemed to have his hands tied. It was nice camouflage, anyway.

“So how were those drinks with the Dispatchers?” Max asked.

“Can’t stop taunting me, eh?”

“Actually, I was wondering how close you got with them.”

“Not as close as I wanted to.”

“Munitions storage?” Max felt like a hypocrite. What Lucien had done bordered on the unforgiveable, and yet here he was, wondering if it might in fact be a good idea to continue fostering such a connection. But it seemed too late to be angry anymore. The welcome gala was coming up fast, and there were far more important things to worry about following the celebration. Rooms at the orphanage still had to be renovated so the boys could pair into their own flats. They needed their own kitchen and dining hall, and a staff to maintain it. All of it required precious funds, none of which the mayor could provide on his own.

“Suddenly we’re curious!” Lucien grinned.

“We need money. I don’t quite care where it comes from.”

“Now we’re talking. I never got around to the armory, unfortunately. But I did come across something better.”

“Better? Nothing they carry is more valuable than the phase units.”

“It is a phase unit. Or at least the plans of one.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You know how sometimes the Dispatchers make private deliveries to ensure nothing gets lost or stolen at the post office? The majority of those directives are issued by Tesla.”

“Yeah, so?”

Lucien stopped and pulled Max back behind a nearby column.

“So I noticed blueprints on the lieutenant’s desk. A phase unit prototype, special-ordered by Mayor Nicolas.”

Max’s eyes went wide. “Mayor Nic-”

“Keep your voice down!” Lucien covered his mouth. “The blueprints are scheduled to arrive here just before the opening gala begins.”

“Blueprints are useless without parts.”

“I checked the list. It might take some scavenging, but we have most of the necessary inventory. The bulk of it is in the wiring.”

Max peered around the corner to be sure the mayor was still distracted. The group was getting a little ahead of them, though not too far. The old man was still rambling about who sat at which table.

“How is this different from the other units we’ve seen?”

“It’s meant to dispatch living tissue.”

“We already know that phase units would likely kill a person-”

“Not kill. Dispatch.”

“For the mayor?” Max gasped. “I thought those were outlawed after DuPont was exiled! What the bloody hell is he so afraid of?”

“I don’t know, but there are rumors security has been tighter around his residence. No doubt it will be increased on the upper floors here for the welcome gala.” Lucien glanced above them at the second floor balcony. The La Cour family always took vacation leave at Morcourt during the two-week period of the gala run. “Jacques told me they’ve been detecting anomaly readings around Nicolas for the past month.”

“Strange.”

“Yeah…”

The power flickered, causing an array of hushed gasps from the orphans. Max looked around them for a moment, his gaze drifting up high to the balconies and rafters, then back down to every exit in the ballroom. He wasn’t sure if he expected to see something—or someone—dashing out in a flash of electric light, though he found himself snapping to attention much quicker ever since his experience in the courthouse. He wondered if more people like that strange boy might exist. What if there were an entire collective of them who traveled up and down the frequencies, if indeed any higher dimensions existed than Viktorium? Would such people be friendly, or were they biding their time until they arrived to destroy the frequency? Of course there was still the possibility that Bernard was right after all, that it had been a figment of his imagination brought on by the strobe effect of the flashing lights combined with the unit of Dispatchers in the courthouse basement. But I know what I saw.

“Ah, Cecile!” the mayor exclaimed.

Max snapped out of his thoughts. He and Lucien both turned their heads to look at the glorious angel of a girl approaching from across the ballroom. Her rich, golden hair was cut shorter from the last time they had seen her, styled in a wavy bob of curls that bounced freely about her face. Her dress was Paris green with black lace running down the sides, tailored in a cut that bore a hint of cleavage and a tad too much thigh. No other woman in Viktorium would dare wear such a thing. Mayor Nicolas cleared his throat in unvoiced disapproval as she took his hand and swirled into his arms with a smile.

“What do you think, Daddy?”

“I think it’s lovely, my dear,” the man kissed her cheek. “But you’re not wearing that to the gala.”

“Daddy, please!” she pouted.

“Certainly not!”

“Well our guests from the Barreau block like it. Don’t you, boys?” she cooed with a curtsy. The young orphans murmured approval amongst each other and nodded, gazing up and down her curvy figure.

“I think it’s lovely,” Lucien grinned. Max elbowed him in the ribs.

“Exactly my point,” the mayor sneered.

“But I’ve just turned seventeen! I can’t be your baby forever, you know? I promise I’ll only dance with you if it makes you happy.”

Her father let out a weary sigh. “I’ll consider it.”

“Oh, thank you so much Daddy, I love you!” she smiled, wrapping her arms around him.

“Yes yes,” he patted her on the back. “Now would you mind running along for now? There’s so much preparation work to be done for our welcome gala-”

“Oh don’t be silly Father,” Cecile cut him off, “you know the setup is exactly the same as last year and you’re boring these poor boys half to death! How would you gents like the upstairs tour of Morcourt Hall?”

“Now wait just a minute!” the mayor protested, but the boys were already surrounding his daughter in excitement. Nicolas threw up his hands and turned to his advisor. “I give up. Just leave it the same as last year aside from the front tables. No one will know.”

“Yes sir,” his aide nodded.

Max rushed to join Lucien and Cecile at the front of the group as they all headed up the grand staircase to the second floor, but a voice beckoned him back.

“Hey Maxwell!” the mayor called from the bottom.

“Yes sir?”

“Not to tear you off my daughter’s tour, but I was wondering if I might have a word. Would you mind walking with me? I’ll show you the view from the roof,” the man smiled.

Max considered it a moment. He still didn’t feel comfortable letting Lucien out of his sight, especially not with Cecile. Then again, Bernard would keep watch and it wasn’t as if he’d have the chance to pull anything stupid while the rest of the group was in tow anyway. The young elder also felt a certain weight of guilt beginning to wear on his chest. Knowing the mayor’s private concerns regarding anomalies, and that he was having a special phase unit constructed—a unit he and Lucien intended to steal at the first available opportunity—it didn’t make him feeling like feigning honesty.

Max and the other boys had become good friends with the mayor and Cecile in the last couple years they’d worked the welcome gala together. It was a pity to have to lie to his face. It felt wrong. Then again, Max had witnessed Viktorium devolving into a house of rats ever since his arrival. No one could fully be trusted, but in some ways, that was okay. It was easier to justify when the mayor had done little to help them. Still, he hated knowing that even under his watch, the Barreau boys were becoming as corrupt as the rest of the city. He couldn’t live with that forever.

The elder breathed a deep sigh and trudged back down. This was going to suck.

“All right.”

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House of Rats – Part 11

The kitchen staff at the mess hall on Rue de Charlet found themselves in an overworked frenzy as they struggled to keep up with lines that extended longer than usual. The public cafeteria three blocks up had shut down in recent days due to a rat infestation, which meant all their usual patrons needed somewhere else to eat. No restaurants in the Mendrés District remained open, so of course the closest place was the mess hall on Charlet, a building typically reserved for the Dispatchers.

Because of the obvious tension between the two groups, the Barreau boys always made sure to arrive an hour later than they had at their previous cafeteria. Any earlier, and they risked running into the Dispatchers during shift changes. It was bad enough to be eyed with suspicion all the time. But this particular day was not one in which they wanted to chance any further encounters. The schedule took some time to work out; Tomas had left ahead of the others to scope it out before the walk down, as he had done for the past week. When the coast was clear and the line just short enough for them to wait inside the building, they scurried in.

But splitting meal times with the Dispatchers was not what worried Max most of all. What concerned him as he stood just inside the door, barely enough for it to close, was the possibility of running into Lucien in public. His fellow elder had yet to show his face, and the time was going on three o’clock. Max was not even so sure he wanted to speak to the boy. What would he even say?

Lucien had outed Quentin on a radio show broadcast to millions of people in Cavarice and the next province over. The Dispatchers had come banging on their door, and while Max was grateful they hadn’t taken Quentin into custody, it didn’t exactly make him want to forgive Lucien either. Edmond and his gang had still done a number on the boy. I’ll have words for that scummy rat, he thought to himself. I’m not sure what those words are yet, but I’ll know when I see him.

The line inched forward at a glacial pace. The rest of the orphans were growing impatient. Shift changes occurred every two hours, barring an emergency. It wasn’t likely a squad of Dispatchers would come barging in for a meal anytime soon, though it was a possibility Max remained wary of. They had to be ready to scatter at any moment. To that end, Bernard seemed to be working out a plan of escape with three of the boys ahead. His eyes darted around the hall every few seconds to keep a constant lookout. Max had been doing the same up until now, though his gaze was beginning to linger as thoughts consumed him.

“Hey,” Bernard snapped him out of it, “you all right?”

“Yeah, just thinking,” the elder sighed.

“Lucien?”

Max nodded. “Doesn’t help that we’re in enemy territory, either.”

“It’s a public place, so at least it’s easier to run,” Bernard reminded him.

“But you can’t hide. Not really.”

The electricity buzzed and flickered throughout the narrow corridor from front to back. Though it was already quite dim in the hall, the sudden flash of pitch black reminded everyone just how dark it was.

“Good god,” Bernard breathed. “These phases are getting worse.”

“Everything is getting worse. There are more Dispatchers on every corner now. Have you noticed that? It’s like every time we walk out the door, we’re being watched.”

“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if somebody figured out our little operation somehow. But they haven’t made a move before today, which is strange. Even when Edmond showed up, there was something…”

“What is it?”

“He seemed really high-strung,” Bernard explained. “Like somebody was on his case about something. And they didn’t bother taking Quentin into custody, even though we didn’t have his citizenship papers. They even saw Tomas with one of their old phase units and brushed it off like it was nothing.”

“It’s not what they were after,” Max pondered. His mind searched for answers that seemed just out of reach. He considered everything that had occurred so far that day. What Severo had told him of the Dispatchers not being trustworthy, of all the ways in which Lucien had drawn a wedge between them with his actions, as if he had to get away for some reason. Then it dawned on him. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “If I wanted to talk to Quentin in private, how might I go about doing that?”

“You’d close the door, obviously,” Bernard said with a condescending smirk.

“Outside of the orphanage. Far enough away from anyone who might try to eavesdrop.”

“Out on the street? Perhaps in an alley. But that’s farfetched Max, you don’t honestly think that-”

“Oh, I do think,” Max cut him off. “Why else would he go to the radio station and say all that shit to put us on edge?”

“He can’t be working with the Dispatchers!”

“And why not?”

“First off, what motive would he have for doing something so stupid?” Bernard reasoned. “And where would he get the money to pay them off? It would be a losing game. He’s in the same boat as the rest of us.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Max sighed. Dead end. “He could be stealing extra parts and pocketing the money.”

“Would that really be worth the trouble? He’s an orphan. There’s no buying your way out of that. He would need to secure a Level Three pass at the very least to even set foot in another district before the gala celebrations. Those aren’t cheap, even on the black market.”

“True. But what if Cécile-”

Max found himself cut off by the slamming of a door against the back wall halfway down the hall behind him. Boisterous laughter filled the corridor as two squads of Dispatchers rushed their way in, shoving through the line and pushing people aside to get to the front. Their arrival was met with a sea of angry glares from the civilian public, but of course no one dared say anything. It was their mess hall after all, and they got priority. Most of the Barreau boys turned their faces toward the wall as they passed by for fear of being recognized by someone. Bernard looked to Max, ready to scatter if necessary, but the elder shook his head. They would wait until the second squad had gone by.

This presented a problem. Much to their surprise, the other three Dispatchers did not seem to be in any hurry to eat. Instead, they cut in line right behind Max and kept jabbering away. The young elder’s heart began to thud in his chest. The power flickered again through the hallway as their chuckles filled his ears, and he felt a rush of panic when he recognized two of their voices. Jacques and Alfred. The officers from the courthouse. But who was that third voice giggling with them? He swore it sounded even more familiar.

“Remind me to buy us all another round next time, yeah?” the boy laughed. “That wasn’t a bad game!”

Lucien.

“I’ll drink you to the floor next time, Riviere,” Jacques assured him.

“I think Alfred here’s got a better chance of that. You should bring along that other chap  next time, what’s his name?”

“Phillipe.”

“Yeah, good ole’ Phil, that’s the one!”

“I’d prefer not to,” Jacques insisted. “He’s a bloody drag.”

“So are some of my boys, but they’re good kids.”

“You don’t know Phillipe like we do,” Alfred sighed.

“Aw, give the kid a chance, he can’t be that stupid.”

“Good day, Lucien,” Jacques rolled his eyes. “It’s been grand and all, but I’m half-smashed and starving. Come on Alfred, let’s skip the line.” The two stepped around the group of Barreau boys and pushed their way up.

“Suit yourselves, gentlemen,” Lucien muttered. “Some of us can’t have all the luck in the world.”

Max had been biding his time listening to the exchange. He could hardly believe his ears. Gallivanting with Dispatchers? How stupid and reckless could you possibly be! The cold sweat and panic that had gripped his heart in the moments before was now replaced by a fury like none other. A hot rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins, saturating his muscles. Soon there would be no choice but to act. The line inched forward. Still, he waited for what seemed an eternity in those last seconds. Did Lucien even realize where he was standing? What excuse would he have?

The power flickered again. Time to move.

Max whipped around and threw his old friend against the wall, pinning his chest. Knocked the wind clear out of him. Though the young elder was considerably shorter than his taller, lankier counterpart, his strength and speed were much greater. The people who had gathered in line behind them immediately backed away. Shock and embarrassment flooded Lucien’s face when he realized who had plastered him against the wall with all the force of a locomotive.

“You’ve got some explaining to do!” Max shouted. The crowd fell quiet. Bernard and the rest of the boys jerked around in fright, prepared to run if they had to. The elder glanced over his shoulder apologetically. He knew it was best not to cause a scene for their sake, and yet he wanted to. He wanted everyone to know just how much of a filthy rat this boy was. A minor scuffle in the mess hall was a grain of sand compared to the floodgates Lucien had opened with his radio appearance.

“Look, I’m happy to do that,” the lanky teen said, in between jumbles of nervous laughter. Max gripped his throat.

“I’d love to hear it! Tell everyone here what a rat you are!”

“You really think it’s wise to discuss this in the Dispatchers’ mess hall?” Lucien choked.

“Why not? It’s not like they don’t already know, now that you had to go off and run your fucking mouth on Casanov’s show for all of Viktorium to hear-”

“Max!” Bernard urged, grabbing his shoulder from behind. “I share your anger my friend, but you don’t want to do this. Not here. Let him go.”

The elder looked around him at the sea of staring faces in the line. Some appeared to be waiting for the mayhem to commence, others rolled their eyes or stood with arms crossed in disapproval. The corridor had grown quiet as a grave. Lights buzzed and flickered again, briefly shattering the silence that hung in the air. Max hated to admit it, but Bernard was right this time. He let go of Lucien and stepped back.

“Fine,” he breathed. Lucien peeled away from the wall and straightened himself. The two boys took back their places in line as the crowd resumed their conversations.

“Somebody’s tense.”

“You have no idea what kind of day I’ve had because of you!” Max snapped through clenched teeth.

“Hey wait a second, I know you,” a middle-aged man said, peering out from halfway down the line as they neared the doorway. “You, the tall blond kid.”

Lucien’s eyes went wide and he glanced back.

“Yeah, you! I heard you on the radio. That’s the guy that said something about the Outlanders being reformed. One of those scumbags killed my little brother and cooked him in pieces! They can’t be reformed! And if one of you Barreau boys is hiding them, you sure as hell ain’t eating here with the rest of us!”

Max shot Lucien a confused look. “Reformed?”

“Apparently you missed the rest of the broadcast.”

“Get over here, I’ll rip your measly throat out!” The man went wild, shoving everyone who tried to hold him back as he tore out of line and charged toward them. The woman controlling the line at the door rushed in to block him, inadvertently allowing in more people than she had intended. Lucien dragged Max through the door just in time before an off duty Dispatcher rushed over to assist.

“Sir! Sir, you need to get back!” the woman shouted.

“They’re harboring an Outlander right here in our city!”

“Thank you, but it’s been taken care of,” the Dispatcher explained. “Now either you need to get back in line and behave sir, or we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“I’m not leaving, I’ve come this far and I’ll kill those rats!” the man shouted, struggling against the boy’s hold.

Max and Lucien laughed as they grabbed their trays and joined the food line, observing him from afar. Lucien gave the man a wave, which only made him more livid. The Dispatcher at that point charged up his phase unit and fired a pulse which knocked him out. Alfred and Jacques left their meals at the table and ran over to assist in dragging the unruly patron out to the curb. Max turned back, grateful the man wouldn’t cause any more trouble for them and began filling his tray with an assortment of clean silverware, plates, and a bowl.

The Dispatchers’ mess hall afforded far more options than the cafeteria the Barreau boys had previously attended. The food was up to date and of much higher quality, whereas before, they would wait in line for half-stale items. Max felt good that his group of orphans were better taken care of here, and yet he knew it would only be a matter of time before the other hall opened again. Then it was back to green muck that posed as beans, rock hard bread, and other amorphous or congealed choices that sat too long under heat lamps.

As the rest of the boys took a seat at a corner table far across the room from where the Dispatchers were eating, Max coaxed Lucien to the end nearest the wall for privacy. His anger had faded since the incident in the line. Knowing he had missed a crucial segment on the radio show earlier made him realize that perhaps he was jumping to conclusions about his friend. It was quite possible he’d been detained at the gate, or forced into some strange position of public admission about their actions concerning the Outlanders. Maybe he was simply covering the best he could.

“So what happened?” Max asked. They had to speak over the din of the crowd, but he tried not to be too loud.

“Well,” Lucien sighed, “I can see how you might have misunderstood what I said. Especially that whole bit about Quentin.”

Max glanced over at the boy at the other end of the table, his face still swollen and bruised from the Dispatchers’ abuse. At least he was eating well and socializing with the others. Still, a visit to the doctor was probably in order to assess the damage.

“Yeah, you got him beat up pretty good,” the elder frowned.

“I didn’t intend for that.”

“I’m sure you didn’t intend for a lot of things. You still owe him an apology. Igor wants my balls for taking more than our fair share of the parts, by the way.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Lucien chuckled. “Anyway…we got detained at the gate by Pontius. He buried me with questions. Kept asking about Quentin, where he went, why he wasn’t with us.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That he was recaptured by the Outlanders.”

“And why go to the radio station and tell all of Viktorium that I was hiding him?”

“The Dispatchers wouldn’t get off my back otherwise. Pontius was convinced we were working with the Outlanders for whatever reason, despite his lack of any evidence-”

“So you proved his theory?” Max cut him off.

“I had to validate the hostage angle somehow! I figured if I told them something about how the Outlanders could be reintegrated into society with the proper care, it would get them off our backs and make us look good at the same time. And that maybe Quentin would be the martyr who saved us or whatever. Then I joined them for a round of drinks in solidarity. I messed up, okay?”

“I had to go to the old courthouse to retrieve his documents and nearly got caught myself! Then when I returned, I found out the Dispatchers paid us a visit. But oddly enough, they didn’t take Quentin into custody. Now why was that, Lucien?”

“How the hell should I know, I wasn’t there!”

“Maybe you were. You would have had enough time after the radio show.”

“Would you listen to yourself? This is insane.”

“Is it?” Max observed a slight quiver in his voice, as if he’d just broken out in a sweat. “You also seemed eager to leave our morning operation early. So I’m sorry if I really don’t know what to think anymore,” the elder sighed, slumping into his palm. “I just want the truth.”

“That is the truth, honest to God!”

“God doesn’t mean shit in Viktorium.”

“So you don’t trust me? Fine friend you are,” Lucien retorted.

“You’re on very thin ice,” Max stood, grabbing up his tray to go sit with the other boys. “But the welcome gala is in a few days, and we’re helping with security again. Should give you an ample chance to prove yourself.”

“Oh come on!” Lucien pleaded.

“Put it this way,” the elder answered, backing away, “If you screw me again, I’ll be handing you over to Igor on our next run. I’ll let him have his choice of which body part he wants to eat.”

Max left him to join Bernard and the others. He hadn’t believed a word that came out of Lucien’s mouth, though he certainly wanted to. There was just no way to give him the benefit of the doubt when all the cards were stacked against him. He shuddered to think about working security at Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome gala, where any manner of things could go wrong. Of course up to two squads of Dispatchers would be deployed with them, but Severo’s warning remained clear in the young elder’s mind. So if I can’t trust the Dispatchers and I can’t trust one of my own, then who is left?

Max shook off the feeling and finished his lunch, listening to the mindless chatter of the Barreau boys. It provided him a sense of calm and belonging in the chaos of the world. Yet deep down, he knew nothing was static. That thought frightened him most of all.

Then Quentin looked over at him and smiled in the way that friends with secrets often do.

Perhaps I can trust the Outlanders.

The power flickered again.

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House of Rats – Part 8

Edmond Fache was absolutely not the kind of boy to be a pushover. Or at least that’s what he tried to convince himself of on the drive to Barreau Orphanage to pick up Quentin Vaugrenard. His radio station appearance had been a complete farce, and he was damn sick of being branded the laughingstock of the Dispatchers force all because Lucien Riviere’s mother had half the city authorities under her heel. Her precious boy got away with anything and everything. Never mind that he was as common a criminal as the rest, or that everyone down at the station suspected he was plotting his own mother’s death. They would all be sucking his metaphorical cock of power in no time at all, Edmond was sure—if they weren’t already doing so. But of course most of them certainly were. Now now, bend the knees and put your back into it, there’s a good lad. Fache managed to crack a smile in the rearview mirror.

They joked about Lucien down at the station, of course. ‘Here comes the mama’s boy,’ they would say. ‘There he is, the Prince of Viktorium!’ But deep down, they knew they would be bending over backwards for him during any of their dealings with the Barreau boys or the Outlanders. It was no secret that Lucien was in league with both, and so bribed the Dispatchers to look the other way.

No wonder Barreau Orphanage was in shambles; he spent all the money paying everyone to suck him off. Or whatever he did with that money. No one was completely sure. Edmond figured he ran some sort of underground business. Otherwise on paper, Barreau Orphanage had more than enough funds coming in to take care of all the boys’ needs. There was no reason for them to be sneaking out of the city to steal Dispatcher parts and trade them on the black market for extra cash. As it was, Lucien handled all of the trading as well. Any money that legitimately was funneled back into the orphanage itself was a mere pittance.

Edmond dreamed of the day he could catch Lucien for something, anything at all. To uncover his secret operation, whatever it was, and tell the whole world about it. Perhaps he could get in touch with that journalist, Benoit Laurent, who every hit man in the city had been contracted to murder ever since he began his publication of those articles on the history of Viktorium. Yes, that was the one. He would tell Laurent all about how Lucien was sneaking around, bribing the Dispatchers, how many hooks he had plunged into the rear ends of every single authoritative figure in the city, and together they would take down that snide, narcissistic, cunning, shit-eating little—

“You missed the turn,” Lucien sighed, interrupting his thoughts.

Edmond never felt more like jamming a knife into his own throat and spraying the whole windshield red.

“Sorry.” Thank you Lucien, I feel so privileged to eat your shit.

“What’s gotten into you lately, anyway? Ever since we left the radio station, you’re-”

“What?”

“I don’t know. I thought we were having fun.”

Edmond pulled the car into the alleyway as they had previously agreed and shut off the car.

“You want to know what the real highlight of my day is, every day?”

“What?”

“Every fucking moment I don’t have to deal with your sorry ass.”

“Aw, don’t be so glum, chum,” Lucien smiled. “You could at least pretend we’re friends, you know, like you did before at the gate? It’s just a while longer.”

“It’s always just a while longer with you. You know who else used to tell me that? The employer my parents sold me off to back in the real world. ‘Oh Edmond, not to worry, you’ll get your fingers out of those spindles soon, just a while longer.’ I’m done bending over for you.”

“Oh Edmond. I’m sorry your death has not changed anything for you. Oh wait that’s right, none of you on the Dispatchers force have ever had the privileges that come with death because you haven’t died, have you? Tough break. Look on the bright side, at least your buddy Georges ascended this morning. Play your cards right, and you might be next.”

“Fuck off.”

“No, I’ll stay here, you fuck off and go do the job I’m paying you to do.”

“One day,” Fache got out of the car. “One day, I’ll be there to see you getting yours. And it’ll be the most glorious day of my life.”

“Clock is ticking, chop chop,” Lucien grinned.

Edmond stormed out of the alleyway, attempting in vain to compose himself as his two fellow team members, Antoine and Isaac, joined him.

“Stop,” Isaac said. “We all hate him. That’s no reason to barge into the orphanage and drag Quentin out kicking and screaming by his hair.”

“Why not!” Edmond yelled, shoving him against the wall. “You know what it’s like to be called a fool because of that menace every day? Do you?!”

“Cool it!” Antoine pulled him back. “Of course we know. All of us talk about how we would love to carve that boy a new asshole. But you know what he doesn’t have? Legitimacy. On paper, he’s just another orphan. If he does do his mother in, we’ll have every opportunity to kill him. But not now, you understand?”

“Whatever,” Fache grumbled.

“Besides,” Isaac said, “you think one of these little alligators he feeds isn’t going to snap some day and break his neck? He’s got to be in debt to everyone.”

“Yeah,” Antoine said. “Feel better about that.”

Their leader shook his head. “I’ll be the one to break his neck soon. The only thing that will make me feel better right now is dragging Quentin the hell out of that building by his hair. I don’t care if he does come willingly. I’m tired of putting on a show. I do it enough for Lucien.”

The group headed out of the alley and up the Barreau block to the orphanage. It was rare they had to make a trip out here, but whenever they did, Edmond made it a point to take a good look around at the fruits of what corruption had produced. The narrow canal which ran inland from the sea to the end of Barreau Street was covered in thick layers of algae. Varying amounts of rubble and toppled stone structures lined the roads and walkways, and the bridges over the canal were in a severe state of disrepair. It was easy to trip over the cracked sidewalks if one wasn’t paying attention. Broken or boarded up windows and kicked in doors were a common sight. Shattered glass and debris were everywhere, and unattended gardens extended their weeds like decaying fingers into the street.

“This place is disgusting,” Isaac remarked as they lumbered their way up the crooked steps to the orphanage entrance.

“You can thank Lucien for that,” Edmond reminded him, pushing ahead of him to bang on the door. It came a bit more forcefully than he intended. Not that it mattered. They were on Lucien’s clock, after all.

A young, light-skinned black boy peered out the side window before opening the door. Edmond recognized him as Bernard from his last visit. He said nothing to the boy, instead shoving his way inside before stating his business. He had been taught during a basic training course that this motion of asserting your power was the easiest way to ensure full cooperation.

“Hello gentlemen,” Bernard said. “What might I do for you today?” His tone relayed a sense of annoyance. Edmond didn’t like it.

“Quentin Vaugrenard,” the Dispatcher replied sternly. “Where is he?”

“I’m sorry, he’s out running an errand. Would you like some tea-”

Edmond rolled up his sleeve and shoved the boy into the wall, activating his phase unit as he held him there. A blue pulse of electricity sparked up in Bernard’s face.

“I’m not going to ask again!” the second lieutenant barked.

“Take it easy!” Antoine scolded him.

“No!”

“What’s going on?” One of the other boys had rushed out of the hall to see what the matter was. “Leave him alone! Quentin’s not here.”

Edmond dropped Bernard to the floor and charged into the hall of beds. Several of the boys scrambled around, ducking behind cabinets or slamming drawers. Fache held up his hand and averted his gaze from one who had been changing clothes in the corner and gave a leisurely look around. Much as he wanted to catch them with their stolen Dispatcher parts strewn about, he resisted the urge. Lucien would give him shit for it. He looked up to the ceiling, perhaps expecting something incriminating to be hanging above. Then he heard the power of a phase unit activating behind him and slowly turned. It was Tomas, the boy who had run out to help Bernard. A blue pulse now danced in his face.

“Whoa, easy…”

“It’s all right sir, we can take him down from here,” Isaac said from the foyer. “And we can take this bugger in for stolen parts!”

“No,” Edmond sighed. “You can’t. At least not without a warrant. We just want Quentin,” he said, bravely pushing past the boy, who kept the unit trained on him. A thump came from high in the ceiling as he began to walk out. The lieutenant stopped and turned again on his heels to face Tomas. “Ah. Seems we found him. Let me guess. Crawl space?”

“Tomas,” Bernard said, shuffling into the hall, “give me that!”

“It’s mine.”

The young leader dragged him aside by the wrist and forcibly unstrapped the unit, ripping it free from his arm and tossing it over to Isaac.

“Here!” he said. “It’s all we’ve got of your equipment, I swear!”

Isaac briefly inspected the model before tossing it back.

“Keep it. It’s inferior anyway. Sorry ladies,” he smirked, winking at the boys.

“Upstairs,” Fache ordered, storming out the hall.

The three of them charged up to the second floor, intent on banging down the door to Max’s flat. But to Edmond’s surprise, the boy was already sitting obediently outside in the hall. Isaac and Antoine exchanged puzzled looks. He had been instructed to keep up his act until they were far enough outside the front door. Quentin stepped to his feet with a sigh, dusting himself off and feigning a yawn.

“About time you got here.”

“Keep quiet until we’re outside,” Edmond hissed.

“Why’s it matter? He could talk to me here anytime he likes.”

Fache responded by grabbing the boy’s auburn hair and yanking him over to the stairs. If he didn’t want to keep up the act, he wouldn’t have to. The seasoned Dispatcher would certainly make it real enough for him.

“Ouch, are you fucking kidding me!” Quentin yelled. “Get off, you son of a bitch!” The team dragged the young teen down as he continued hurling all manner of curses and insults at them. Isaac and Antoine clearly disapproved of their leader’s methods, but Edmond knew they wouldn’t argue with him in here.

“Where are you taking him?” Bernard stopped them at the bottom in protest.

“Stand aside,” Isaac warned.

“Look, can’t we just take a few moments to-”

“There is nothing to discuss,” Edmond cut him off. “This boy has been staying in the city under your roof illegally. The fact he’s an Outlander should frankly scare the shit out of you. These boys are cannibals, incapable of reform, and you all should have known better than to harbor such a dangerous criminal.”

“Listen-”

“If I were you Bernard, I would consider myself lucky that we don’t arrest all of you and shut this place down right now. It’s within my power to do so. Now I’m sorry, but this boy is no longer any of your concern. We’re just going to have a chat. Now stand aside.”

“Don’t worry Quentin, we’ll get you back!” Bernard called.

“You guys don’t have proof, I know it!” the boy shouted. “They don’t have any proof. Bernard, tell them! Where’s Max? I need to talk to Max. He’ll be right back, I swear! Get the hell off of me! Hands off my hair motherfucker, I’m walking!”

The Dispatchers shoved Quentin along like a rag doll past the rest of the orphaned boys who had crowded around in the foyer to watch the raucous display. Once they reached the landing, Edmond opened the door and hurled him all the way down the stone steps and onto the sidewalk. Several of the boys cringed and backed away as he turned toward them. Bernard had crossed his arms and stood staring at the floor, probably contemplating what to do next.

“We’ll retrieve his documents on the way to the station,” Edmond explained. “If he checks out, he’ll be permitted back under probation pending an inquiry at Immigration Affairs. If it turns out his papers were forged, well…let’s just say it won’t be pretty for any of you. Good day.”

The officer slammed the door shut on the sea of baffled expressions behind him and followed his team down the steps to the sidewalk. Quentin had spit out several rounds of blood-soaked mucus, leaving a trail of red in their wake. He looked as if he might slaughter them all once they made it to the alleyway. Edmond was sure he understood it was just for show, though now that they were out of that stuffy old building, he began to regret the particular amount of force with which he had handled the situation. It was probably a bit much to grab him by the hair. Actually, far too much. Tossing him down the stairs, definitely. Were the Outlanders still holed up in the city, Fache was certain they would already be feasting on his remains.

The group turned right into the alleyway and ducked Quentin into the back seat of the patrol car where Lucien was waiting in the front passenger side to speak with him. All the doors were abruptly shut and locked, the window shades drawn.

“Hope you enjoyed the radio show. Sorry for that little display,” Lucien turned back, producing a white silk handkerchief for the boy to wipe his bloody face. Quentin snatched it out of his hand.

“Fuck you all!” he snapped.

“Are you finished?”

The boy dabbed at his nose, saying nothing.

“That’s a good lad. I’m going to need you to do something for me tonight. It’s very important. But first I must ask you one question, and your answer will determine whether or not I can move forward on this.”

“What is it?”

“Captain Georges…is he dead?”

Quentin only smiled.

“Is he dead, Quentin?”

Still no answer.

“Quent I swear to god you sodding little turd-swallow, I’ll break every bone in your pathetic little-”

“No,” he finally answered. “And we are not actually cannibals. Igor just made up that bit to frighten everyone. Rumors are powerful things.”

Edmond let out a sigh of relief. He had believed it.

“Ah, good. We can proceed. So what is the pit Igor was referring to, if it’s not about skinning people alive?”

“Classified. Now what the fuck do you really want from me, Lucien?”

Edmond lifted a hand to conceal his budding smile, clearing his throat in case anyone took notice. He had to admire the boy’s courage, and the way he didn’t seem at all fazed or intimidated by Lucien’s childish antics. Fache envied Quentin. To have such command over himself, to retain his composure even amid intense pain and uncivilized treatment. They had knocked out at least two of his teeth throwing him down the orphanage steps, and Edmond tore out a decent clump of his hair somewhere along the way. That boy was iron.

“I need you to get this to your people,” Lucien said, passing him a beige sack with some sort of heavy equipment inside that clinked together. Edmond’s eyes immediately went wide.

“What is that?” he asked sternly.

“None of your business,” Lucien replied.

“It damn well is my business if it involves-”

“Nothing you need to worry about.”

The Dispatcher sighed and ran the hand he had previously used to cover his smile through his long blond hair. Lucien may well have bribed him blind and stupid, but Edmond was still loyal to his friends until death. If what this teenage monster was planning injured or took the lives of his comrades, he personally vowed to strangle the life out of him. And if he managed to come back from that, well then Fache would wait and strangle him again and again, if necessary. However many times it took to stop him.

“When do you need them delivered by?” Quentin asked, poking his head in the bag at such an angle to avoid anyone else seeing what was inside.

“Before the end of the dinner hour.”

The boy sighed. “Fine. I assume Igor knows what’s going down.”

“He does.”

“And do you?”

A confused look fell across Lucien’s face. “I don’t follow.”

“Igor is a loose cannon,” Quentin smiled. “You play with him, you’re playing with fire. You would do well to keep that in mind. The rest of us do. There’s something else too, and…this is actually very bad news for you in particular. He doesn’t exactly trust you.”

“I beg your pardon?” Lucien laughed nervously. “You’ve got to be joking. I have done everything for him, including letting him have more than his fair share! Who else would he trust, if not me?”

“Maxwell Ferrier, for one.”

Lucien rammed the back of his seat as far down as it would go, smashing it into Fache’s legs. The young Dispatcher resisted the urge to plant the side of his skull into the window.

“Why the hell would he trust Max?!” the boy roared.

“Igor respects that he sticks to his guns,” Quentin explained. “He’s consistent. He doesn’t stand for bullshit. And he has no incentive whatsoever to pay us off, aside from fear. You, on the other hand, have the entire city eating out of your palm.”

“So what, you’re going to bite the hand that feeds you?”

“Not my call to make. But dogs can grow so incredibly, insatiably hungry when just the right bells are rung. And as it so happens, you have a very long string of bells trailing behind you. I would watch my step. You’re standing on a minefield. Any idiot could see that.”

“Now you have the gall to make threats? You Outlanders would be DEAD without me!”

“Oh, Lucien. It must suck when someone you want to manipulate isn’t as desperate for your handouts anymore. Fortunately, you are not our only benefactor.”

The boy was teeming with rage now. Delicious. “Then who else? WHO ELSE?!”

But Quentin just smiled, lifting the handkerchief to wipe the rest of the blood off his face before folding it up neatly and stuffing it back into Lucien’s coat pocket.

“Who else, Quentin? Quentin, please tell me who else! Who else is there? Quentin!”

The boy got out of the car in silence with his bag, shutting the door behind him.

“Quentin goddamn you, who else! YOU FUCKING MENACE, I will have you killed! Come back you sodding piece of shit! QUENTIN!”

But the boy headed back down the alleyway toward the orphanage, even as Lucien continued screaming out the window at the top of his lungs in unrestrained fury.

This was the best day Edmond Fache had ever had since he first arrived in Viktorium.

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House of Rats – Part 5

“Proof?” Lucien repeated.

The veteran whipped his empty flask aside in unbridled rage and charged toward him, or at least as much as the cane would allow. When he closed within five feet, he raised it up just enough so that his fall forward rammed the end of it hard into the elder’s stomach. The young boy lurched over and fell to the ground in a fetal position, vomiting onto the broken roadway. A collective gasp rose in the air from both the Dispatchers and the orphans as they watched him writhe in pain. Once he regained his bearings, Lucien decided to remain where he was while Pontius exhausted every possible lead.

“He’s right, you know,” Edmond sighed. “And we’ll have to file an incident report for that.”

“I don’t give a shit. Felt damn good. You sure there’s nothing?”

“Not on the orphans. We checked. The Outlanders have our phase units-”

“Suddenly you seem so eager to talk,” Pontius cut him off. “Why is that? And don’t try to tell me it’s because this clever piece of shit scares you,” he said, poking at Lucien with his cane. The boy groaned. “Well?”

“What he was about to tell you is the truth,” Edmond said. “Quentin approached the gate after escaping from the Outlanders and alerted us to the hostage situation. Said they wanted to make a deal with us for their release. Georges made the call to go out with Isaac and myself to check it out after we convinced him. The three of us followed the boy up to the old abandoned villa. Georges suspected it was a trap, so we took a moment to coordinate our approach-”

“That’s not what happened, nothing was coordinated!” Isaac interjected. “We walked straight into a trap and you know it!”

Pontius’s eyes narrowed. “Is that true?”

From his place on the ground, Lucien saw Edmond gulp.

“He…probably doesn’t remember clearly. I’m not so sure I do. It all happened so fast, and with what they did to Georges-”

“What did they do to Georges?” The commander was growing impatient.

“They…cut his cock off.”

“Jesus, they’ll eat anything, won’t they?” Pontius stifled a laugh, but fell serious again as he turned back to Isaac. “Your judgment. Can I trust it? Or do you feel that you were irreparably traumatized by witnessing a man bleeding from the stump of his amputated prick?”

“I was not traumatized, sir. My judgment is crystal clear,” Isaac said.

“I see,” the old man huffed, pacing in front of the group of orphans. “So if I asked you to pick out Quentin from this little family of rats here…is that something you could do?”

Shit.

“Well, I think this has gone on long enough,” Lucien sighed, stepping to his feet and dusting himself off. “Just thought I’d indulge your ego awhile. Admit it Pontius,” he shrugged. “You’ve got nothing. Quentin was recaptured by the Outlanders, I saw it myself. All of my boys here can verify that with their own individual accounts if you’d like. We were hostages, yet you want to treat us like criminals at the gate. And subjecting my poor boys to any more of these baseless accusations after the terrifying ordeal they’ve all been through,” he continued, stepping over to pat their backs in reassurance, “without so much as a search warrant or probable cause, to say nothing of the absence of a lawyer? I’m afraid that you, sir, can eat shit.”

Pontius broke out in a fit of hysterical laughter.

“I have to give you credit. You’ve got chops, kid. But I’m curious as to just what the hell makes you think you’re in charge here,” he said, leaning in close to the obstinate boy. “I mean, the arrogance of you is just…mind-boggling.” His face again returned to that cold, sturdy rock that seemed to be his default expression. Lucien crossed his arms, remaining steadfast. The old codger wasn’t making this easy.

“You are aware who my mother is, yes?” He spoke quietly so the orphans wouldn’t overhear.

“Constance Renou, yes, I am aware,” the man obliged. “But you’re still a Riviere on paper, meaning you’re not legally her son without her signature. And being that your pass is two months expired, well…you’re shit outta luck, kid.

“I could give her a ring.”

The veteran backed away, rolling his eyes. “Now why the hell would I let you do that?”

“You know the extent of her power,” Lucien spoke louder now. “She would find out what you’ve done eventually. She’s the director of Viktorium-France Transit. Any traffic in or out of this city is her business, which means that she governs the very wall you gentlemen guard, along with funding a good portion of your operations. I could easily get you thrown in prison for the abuse of innocent civilians. All of you.”

“I don’t think she cares about some no-name,” Pontius grinned smugly. “Let’s ask your orphans then how much they know.” As the man turned his back to address the boys in his group, Lucien reached up inside his sleeve and discreetly slipped Edmond a handful of bills.

“Isaac’s silence,” he whispered. The young Dispatcher glanced at what he’d been given, then leaned up to his ear.

“It will take a bit more than that.”

“Fine,” Lucien sighed, reaching in again and handing over a few gold coins.

Edmond smiled. “This should get me out of that crummy flat. Thanks!”

A breath caught up in the elder’s throat as he felt his heart sink to his stomach. He glanced nervously over to Isaac, hoping Edmond was joking. Of course he was; he had just been waiting for Pontius to pace another semicircle around the orphans so his back would be turned to them again. Edmond snuck over and shoved the money into his colleague’s hand, whispering something in his ear as he did so. Isaac’s mouth dropped open, and an angry expression befell his face for a moment until he actually gazed down at the amount. Then his eyes went wide and he raised an eyebrow at Lucien. The orphanage elder gave him a simple nod and a wink. The Dispatcher blushed. What?

Edmond stifled a giggle as he returned. “I told him you want to buy a night with him.” The elder stomped on his foot. “Ow!”

“I’m not into men!” he snapped through clenched teeth.

“Don’t worry, he won’t talk.”

“Good.”

“Especially not with your cock in his mouth,” Edmond laughed.

Lucien elbowed him. “Enough. I pay for your silence, not your friendship.”

Across the way, Pontius appeared to be deeply invested in the account of Florian, a ten year-old. He had knelt down on one knee, hanging onto his cane as the boy spoke tearfully about the alleged ordeal. No one was certain whether or not the veteran had any children of his own, but judging by the look on his face as those piercing eyes began to crack, Lucien assumed he did. That’s it, Flo! Break him for me. After some time, the man finally got up and paced back over. The elder’s heart pounded in his chest as he awaited the verdict. They didn’t have much time left before Andre Casanov went on the air. Pontius eyed him with scorn.

“Isaac,” he called. “See to it the boys are escorted back to Barreau Orphanage.”

“Aye, sir.”

Lucien smiled and began to step away, but the veteran stopped him.

“Not you,” he insisted. “You get to stay with me.” He headed across to an abandoned, bombed-out building to the left that served as their base of operations.

“Pontius, I swear to God-”

“Relax!” the man snapped. “I’m putting in a call to Constance. After she verifies your ID number, I’ll write you a temporary permit and you can skulk off to wherever you’re so desperate to go. Try not to get kidnapped again. Hero.”

“Hero?” Lucien called.

“Your boy told quite the sob story,” Pontius sighed. “Reminded me of my kid.”

“I didn’t know you have a kid.”

“I did once…”

“What happened?”

The man hesitated. “Dalishkova took him.”

“Dalishkova Knights? Shit. I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is.”

The elder waited for him to enter the building before turning back to Edmond. “Listen, after he verifies my ID, I’ll require your assistance with one more thing.”

“For god’s sake Lucien, what is it now? I have to check the weapons inventory and get back to guard duty!”

“Won’t take more than an hour at most, I promise. Just need to make a quick appearance on Casanov’s show.”

“Andre Casanov? That idiot with the green hair and frilly getup? What ever for?!”

“Max listens to it and I need to talk to Quentin.”

“So talk to him at the bloody orphanage!”

“It’s not that simple. Word gets around in there faster than a case of lice. Everything would blow open wider than Isaac’s arse.”

Edmond laughed. “How would you know how wide his arse is?”

“Please,” Lucien rolled his eyes. “If you saw the way he looks at Tomas every time he pops in for a visit, you’d see it in his face. He turns all soft. Tomas is dominant as can be. Not sure why I even bothered to buy his silence, all I have to do is get Tomas to…what the devil am I even on about, are you going to help me or what?!”

“Of course!” Edmond assured him. “What’s the plan after the show?”

“Take me to the station, write up your statement of what happened at the villa, I’ll sign it and you can check your weapons. Then we drive back to Barreau, you intimidate the boys, bring Quentin out to the alley where we’ll talk business.”

The Dispatcher groaned.

“What’s your problem now?”

“Can I ask what you are planning to do with our phase units?”

“You’re not paid quite enough to know that,” Lucien smiled, patting him on the shoulder.

“Those serial numbers are tracked and I have to list them on inventory every night, you can’t do this you know!”

“Oh, I can do whatever I like Edmond and you’ll still be my obedient little servant, that’s the beauty of our relationship,” he grinned before leaning in close to whisper in his ear. “Just be glad you haven’t been the one to lose your cock yet, because I could make that happen too.”

Edmond shoved him away as Pontius emerged from the building, handing Lucien a temporary permit. The young elder looked carefully over the crumpled paper in case the man was trying to pull a fast one on him in the way of restrictions such as curfews, checkpoints, or limited access to places he was previously allowed. Everything seemed to be in order. He had to smile at the signature on the bottom; the ink had pooled in a couple places, as if the veteran had been deeply reluctant to sign.

“Thank you,” Lucien said.

“Now piss off.”

As the elder trekked on with Edmond shuffling behind, he gazed up at the bombed out skyline and the broken streets below, still full of debris from the Workers’ Rebellion five years prior. It was a miracle that the city had avoided any loss of life back then. The Dispatchers had handled the situation with the utmost care and precision, shielding civilians with the use of a new camouflage which mimicked the frequency of anomalies. Still, it was a bloody affair that ultimately culminated in the exile of Charles DuPont and several of his cabinet members—the only way to avoid an all-out revolution.

Too bad it’s about to start again, Lucien smiled.

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