House of Rats – Part 21

Gretel sat calmly on a subway train out of the Metropoliès District, having been awoken by the blare of alarms sounding throughout the city. She was swift enough that Tesla, drunk on absinthe and fast asleep at his work table, took no notice to her exit. Along the way to the station, she’d heard Dispatchers barking out orders to one another about an Outlander invasion. Her heart skipped at the news. It was the perfect opportunity to test Mayor La Cour’s phase unit on a real person. All she had to do was get to the west gate in time.

Beneath the bulk of her overcoat, she eagerly palmed the device strapped to her right upper arm. Wearing it on the wrist would have been far too conspicuous. Her sleeves could not hide it well, and Gretel was not about to risk being noticed, or worse, taken in for interrogation. She had no formal identification of her own, though nobody seemed to ask questions whenever she brought Tesla’s Level One pass with her. Still, the thought of what she was about to do kept the young German girl on edge.

Gretel took a deep breath and tried to relax as she glanced at the people around her. Some appeared to be in more of a hurry than others, constantly shuffling about the car. Men who sat doing crossword puzzles, women keeping their children in line, Dispatchers readying themselves by the doors. She did cherish her trips out of the lab. Here in the hustle and bustle of the Metropoliès, she could pretend she was just like any other citizen. Sometimes she thought of herself in the third person. Perhaps this girl was on her way home after a long day of work in the textile factories, or heading out to the market to fetch loaves of fresh-baked bread for her mother. No one would have been any the wiser, had she told them so.

She imagined, too, what it might be like to if she could give her life to someone else. That woman over there in the corner is up to something suspicious, I know it. Look how lonely and out of place she is. Hiding something under the bulk of her coat, I wonder what it must be. Why, she’s pilfered something from the lab of the great Nikola Tesla! I’ve heard rumors that such a girl works with him, but I forget her name. She has no parents. What does she do, anyway? How bizarre. Her place should be at school, or at a girls’ home learning things more becoming of a young lady. And she travels by herself? How outrageous! But of course the woman she had selected over in the corner for her game quickly got off at the next stop.

Gretel’s eyes wandered for prospects on either side of her. To the right sat a middle-aged man with his nose buried in a newspaper. She leaned over to get a closer look at the article he was reading. Something called A Brief History of Viktorium, Part IV. Yes, she’d heard of this before. It was a series of works by some hack journalist named Benoit Laurent. He had caused quite the stir throughout the Metropoliès with his work.

“Do you mind?” the man scooted away from her when he caught her peering over his shoulder.

“Sorry. The article looked interesting.”

“Yeah, well get your own paper. This is the only time during the day I ever get to read,” he scoffed, crossing his legs.

“Excuse me, Miss?” a young, golden-skinned black woman to Gretel’s left tapped her shoulder. Her accent sounded Helian, though not entirely so. She appeared considerably well-dressed for an immigrant, though she was clad in black from head to toe, as if she’d come from a funeral. “Pardon his rudeness. You can have my paper if you want. I’m all finished with it.”

“Oh, thank you so much!” the girl smiled. She eagerly flipped to the second page to begin devouring Laurent’s article. But out of her peripherals, she noticed the woman still gazing at her with apparent interest. Oh no, Gretel thought to herself. This was supposed to be a game. I’m just an unsuspecting person in the daily crowd on the metro.

“So where are you headed?” the woman asked.

“Me? Oh, nowhere,” Gretel grinned, raising her right elbow slightly. The phase unit was starting to dig into her skin.

“Folks don’t come on the metro to go nowhere,” the lady pointed out.

“West Central.”

“Ah,” the woman sighed. “The western districts. Well I hope that wherever you go, you’ll get there safe and stay clear of trouble.”

“Trouble?”

“The Dispatcher alarms, of course. You see them all over the place now,” she nodded in the direction of a squad standing by the doors.

“I think I’ll be fine,” Gretel assured her. Good lord, this one seemed more rude than the man next to her. At least he could read his newspaper in peace.

“Forgive me,” the woman shook her head. “I’m just rambling on.”

Gretel glanced up from her reading material at the marquee to check the listing of stops. There were three more to go before the train arrived at West Central. She decided she may as well entertain the woman’s bids for friendly conversation, being that she’d been kind enough to give her the newspaper. The article could wait.

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

“Ermina,” the woman smiled, extending a hand.

“I’m Gretel.”

“Nice to meet you, Gretel.”

“How about you, where are you headed?”

“Oh…here, there…everywhere,” Ermina said. “Wherever the Salt God sends me.”

“The Salt God…” Gretel trailed off. “You’re from Helias?”

“Not quite,” the woman replied. “My family immigrated there a few years after I was born. That’s when we converted to the Dalishkova faith. The Salt God has taken care of us ever since. Now I’m a humble missionary spreading the good word.” Ermina clutched at a small silver amulet on her neck as she spoke.

Gretel cringed, but held her composure. She had known plenty of missionaries before. Men and women of God who traveled and spoke at length of their righteousness under the guise of ‘spreading the good word’. And every last one of them in her village had tried to exorcise or punish her. It was His vengeance, they said. God could never love a witch like you. But Ermina seemed different. She spoke of her religion only when asked, and had begun their conversation with genuine kindness. Gretel found herself curious.

“What do the Dalishkova believe?”

“We believe that there’s a place for all of us here in Viktorium,” Ermina smiled. “Big and small, young or old, human or animal. Even the anomalies.”

“But the anomalies make this frequency unstable. That’s why we have Dispatchers.”

“And that’s why the Dispatchers don’t like us,” the woman whispered. “They want to do things their way because it’s the only way they’ve been taught. Search and destroy. And they learn it from an age as young as yourself. Nobody has time for the old ways in Viktorium anymore. They think they don’t need to learn, but they do. If they ever hope to live in harmony with the anomalies.”

“The old ways?” Gretel asked. “I thought dispatching was the only way.”

“Oh my child, you are naive,” the woman shook her head. “Charles DuPont was hardly the first man to attempt colonization of this frequency. Others came before him, and more will follow, no doubt. But the Dalishkova have been here since ancient times.”

Gretel was taken aback. In all her travels and education under Tesla, she had learned almost everything there was to know about Viktorium, including the manner in which it was founded. DuPont and his team had cleared the frequency for human habitation themselves; no one else existed here prior to their arrival, save for the anomalies themselves. The idea that they had missed something in their documentation of this second Earth plane was unfathomable.

“Helias is the home city of the Dalishkova, but they’ve only sprung up in the last several years,” the girl pointed out.

“Oh, Helias, yes. But we were around long before that.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand how that’s possible.”

“That’s because you’ve been taught to ask the wrong questions,” Ermina smiled. “You will understand in time. Here.” The woman unfastened the silver amulet from around her neck and placed it in Gretel’s hand, closing her fingers around it. “Have faith and you will see. This is my stop. It was nice to meet you.”

The lights on the train flashed green overhead as it arrived at the first of three stations before West Central. Several passengers in the car got up from their seats, including Ermina, who waited for the two squads of Dispatchers to move ahead of her out the door. Gretel was left speechless as her mind filled with questions. She eyed the man to her right. He had fallen asleep with the paper on his lap, hat tipped over his face. The doors closed and the train continued on.

Upon realizing that she and the sleeping man were the only two passengers left on their side, Gretel cautiously opened her hand to glance down at the amulet. It portrayed the figure of a praying angel crouched on a rock over the hilt of a sword, with a wave crashing up behind him. Curious. Gretel then became aware that her momentary glance was giving way to a stare, and an odd feeling of power began to surge within her veins. Perhaps it was a memory, or some signal attempting to force its way into manifestation using her body as a conduit. Whatever it was, it sent a hot rush of blood from her palm straight to her heart. She clenched a fist and discharged a bolt of electricity in her palm to stop it. There was a spark of light, then steam. No further activity persisted from the amulet, which now felt heavier in her hand. Gretel shoved it into her overcoat pocket. Nikola will want to have a look at this, she thought.

The next stop came and went with few passengers departing, though three squads of Dispatchers stepped on and two more arrived from the next car over. It was almost time. An unmistakable tension filled the air as the resident police force of Cavarice conversed amongst themselves. Many of them were younger boys, fresh-faced and unprepared for battle against a foe as savage as the Outlanders. Gretel presumed they’d been mere toddlers when the first leaders of the gang had taken power. At least their captains appeared older, more confident; and yet that seemed to be their folly. Many were boys from rich families with little world experience. And even though the Dispatchers had somewhat of an over-glorified job, how well could they truly fair during an all-out war? Those in the western districts seemed tougher, better bred for such circumstances.

The lights in the car flashed green again. Gretel shoved the newspaper away in her overcoat and got up from her seat. As the Dispatchers stormed out the doors, she followed one of the squads through the bustling crowd of the station platform, keeping far enough distance behind them so as not to raise suspicion. Alarms were still blaring at West Central every few seconds, followed by a female announcer’s voice.

“CODE RED. ALL DISPATCHERS PROCEED TO THE WEST GATE. CODE RED. THE WEST WALL HAS BEEN BREACHED. CODE RED. ALL CIVILIANS PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOMES. A CITYWIDE CURFEW IS IN EFFECT AT NINE THIRTY.”

The girl’s heart was pounding with excitement again. By the time they reached the steps for the surface, pedestrian traffic had slowed from everyone crowding the stairwell. She stopped a moment at the corner to claw at her sleeve and slid the phase unit into place on her wrist, strapping it tight before moving on. Security at the door would be lax. As she waited for the crowds to move, Gretel listened to the conversations happening around her while keeping a careful eye on the Dispatcher squad ten steps ahead of her.

“I’ve heard tell there was an Outlander attack,” one woman whispered to a friend.

“Outlanders?! Those animals are getting back into the city!”

“Keep your voice down, Lucy! You don’t want to cause a panic on this stairwell. We’ll be crushed beneath a herd of elephants.”

“Better than the last time I died,” Lucy sighed. “Some afterlife party this is.”

“This isn’t the afterlife, my dear. This is Purgatory.”

“Oh, do stop it with your Catholic babble!” Lucy huffed and hit the step with her cane. “Every morning at tea time, you asked if I was going to confess my sins. Now we’re in the same boat. Don’t presume to tell me I’m wrong. Perhaps this is just as much your punishment as it is mine. You certainly never were much of a saint yourself, Mrs. Grady, Cordwell, Buffet, and a bit of Crouse on the side!”

Gretel cringed and sidestepped away from the older women, bypassing another man in front of her who kept insisting to his friend that there was some government conspiracy going on. The crowd continued the slow crawl up the stairwell. As she expected, no Dispatchers remained at the exits to oversee security. Streetcars were quickly filling to the brim with panicked people rushing back to their homes before curfew. She dug the newspaper out of her coat and flipped to the last page, on which a map was always printed for the convenience of new arrivals. West Central was about five blocks down from the Barreau District. If she hurried, she could follow the same squad of Dispatchers, sneak through the alleyways, and make it there in time for the action to test the device.

“Stay calm Gretel, you can do this,” she smiled, tucking away the newspaper. A massive clock stood above the main entrance to West Central. She checked the time. 9:03pm. No way to get back to the lab by curfew. The subways would be shut down by then. Damn. She consulted her surroundings for a squad of Dispatchers to follow, as she’d lost sight of the previous group. If anything, most of them knew a variety of paths around the city that weren’t printed on the map. Secret tunnels were rumored to exist underground. If there were a way to get back to the Metropoliès without being noticed, she would gladly take it. Besides if she got caught, she had Nikola’s pass with her. She would say something about an electrical grid survey to fix the power fluctuations. Yes, that’s what I’ll say.

The Dispatchers stepped out to board a streetcar just ahead. Gretel hopped on at the last moment, her coat nearly tripping her up in the process as she reached for the pole. In hindsight, strapping the phase unit to her wrist was not the best idea. She struggled to keep it hidden beneath the sleeve of her coat for much of the journey.

The streetcar traveled on, and soon enough, the breeze of the night air turned warm with a salty aroma. They were getting close to the Barreau District now. Just as the car was about to stop a block from the old courthouse, the Dispatchers leaped off and ran up the street. Gretel sighed and hopped off quietly. It was best not to try following them anymore from here. She was close enough to the west gate, and this was as far as the trolley ran. The car dinged and made a U-turn back in the opposite direction. She was alone on the main road now, which was a dangerous place to be. Most of the streetlamps were broken in this sector. The darkness was thick and palpable. An Outlander could rush out from the shadows at any moment. Gretel swiped up her sleeve and checked the settings on the phase unit to be sure they were correct, then scampered into a nearby alley.

A new scent began to greet her as she traveled on through the twisted night. The musty, earthen dew of the crumbling brick walls around her seemed to mix with a strange, smoky aroma from far off. After sneaking her way through another alley and onto Rue La Seine just opposite the courthouse, she noticed a bright orange glow lighting up the horizon above the Barreau District rooftops. Smoke crept out from between the fingerlike structures even blocks away from the blast. The buildings, bathed in shadow, seemed to coalesce into a charred hand of fate held to the flames. Gretel shivered.

“Don’t get scared now,” she breathed. She continued on through the alleyway behind the courthouse, keeping a careful eye on her surroundings. In passing along the far end of the building, she felt something start to crackle beneath her feet and looked down. A spray of broken glass that had been crunched into a fine powder glittered in the moonlight like a sea of stars. Gretel activated her phase unit and backed against the far wall. The basement window below was broken. Outlanders? She shuddered to think that this was where they’d make their new home. The old courthouse was a symbol of justice. It would make perfect sense. She gazed back at the window frame and the glass on the ground.

“It wouldn’t be ground into powder if they broke it tonight,” she reasoned. “No glass left in the frame, either. Too clean.”

“Much too clean,” a disembodied voice whispered beside her. Gretel jerked her arm upward and sparked a blue pulse of electricity in her palm.

“Who’s there?” No answer. Her heart began to thud in her chest. She kept her back pressed to the wall and tiptoed over to peer around the corner of the building, keeping the phase unit drawn at full power. The scent of sulfur and iron grew more apparent as she stepped out of the alley. A cool breeze from the south carried the haze along with it, encapsulating the darkened streets in smoke that was thick as fog. The young German girl felt a painful lump extending from her chest up to her throat and shivered again in fear. She gazed up and down Rue La Monte, eyes darting from corner to corner, the angled shadows sharp as knives cutting their way into her subconscious mind to hit something primal. Gretel exhaled.

“Stop it,” she whispered to herself. “Just stop it. Just because you’ve never killed anyone before doesn’t mean you can’t tonight.” She listened for any sign of approaching footsteps or voices in the fog. Nothing. She powered off the pulse in her palm before crossing Rue La Monte. No need to draw undue attention to herself. Gretel quietly sprinted through the haze between a row of parked cars and backed into an adjacent alleyway. Once there, she removed her overcoat. It was too much of a hindrance now anyway. She fired the unit up again and turned. The pulse lit her surroundings in a blue glow. Plenty of broken bottles and garbage was strewn around, but she could barely smell it over the smoke. A chain-link fence stood in the middle of the alley with its gate wide open. The girl squinted through the fog, heart still pounding, and proceeded to Rue d’Auseil. Again, her eyes darted from corner to corner.

That’s when she heard the music. A sweet, soft tune produced by a sort of viol, but whose origin was a mystery left unto the shadows of the winding street. She could not pinpoint from whence it came; all at once, it seemed to emerge from here, there, everywhere, as if bouncing on the edge of a dull blade from hilt to tip continuously. There was an intensity to the bow which sliced deep and shuddered the bones, yet an airy quality at the height of the melody that left Gretel’s hair standing on end. Her eyes were welling up with tears, though she knew not why.

Rue d’Auseil. Yes, she’d heard stories about this street. Once upon a time, it had been the shining example of Viktorium’s progressive nature, the one crowning achievement in all of Cavarice which had laid the foundation for social equality before the snobs of the Metropoliès moved in. Then the Workers’ Rebellion happened, and DuPont was ousted. Now, it was a literal haven for ghosts of the past. Anomaly activity had increased tenfold in recent years down the jagged block and its surrounding alleyways. Nobody traversed the darkness of Rue d’Auseil at night, and if they did, it was certainly never alone.

Gretel did her best to ignore the music—mesmerizing though it was—and continued across the street to a winding alleyway. She was about to step out onto the end of Barreau Street when she became aware of a soft electric buzz humming through the air. A series of footsteps and hushed voices emerged from along the curve of the road as two scrappy-looking boys came into view from the shadows.

“How the hell could you not keep up with Igor!” one of them whispered as they scrambled along. “I told you we should have just followed Severo once we saw him. But no, you always have to try and take shortcuts. Now we’re bloody lost. We don’t even know where the safe house is!”

“Shut up! I know which way I’m going. We cut across Rue d’Auseil, and then…and then…”

“And then what?!”

“Never mind, we’ll find it okay, just stick with me!”

Gretel pressed her back against the wall out of sight, heart thundering an audible rhythm in her brain now. They had mentioned following Igor. These boys were most definitely Outlanders. Steady, she told herself as she raised up the phase unit. Their footsteps pounded the pavement faster in her direction, and for a moment, she feared she would have to step out and risk giving herself away to any potential Dispatchers who might be sweeping the area. That didn’t happen. Instead, the two fleeing boys turned straight into her alley at the end of the curve. One of them tripped and hit the wall as the other slid to a halt in front of her, the blue glow of the phase unit illuminating his expression of horror.

“Holy shi-”

Gretel fired before he even finished the expletive. The electric pulse tore through his chest and quickly encapsulated his entire body, blasting it apart into a flash of nothingness, even as his voice echoed far off into the next realm. Just like that, the terrified child was gone. No body. No blood. Not a single trace of evidence. The device had worked.

“Oh please!” the other boy pleaded, “please don’t kill-”

A sudden splatter of blood hit Gretel in the face as his throat was slit by some invisible force. The second victim fell to the ground dead in a puddle. The soft electric buzz from before emerged again through the alleyway, and in her panic, Gretel backed against the opposite wall and fired a new pulse in its direction. She paused to catch a breath and fired another, two more feet away. Then another. A bolt of electricity appeared in mid-air, followed by a high-pitched hum and flash of light. The petit figure of a young girl with dark goggles emerged from the bolt. Her head was shaved. She was covered in dirt and grime from head to toe, and she wore a Dalishkova gauntlet on her wrist, above which a wire traveled up her arm to some sort of backpack. She tore off the goggles and narrowed her eyes at Gretel.

“I’ll take that,” she smiled, grabbing hold of the German girl’s wrist.

“I don’t think so.” Gretel fired a pulse, which sent her adversary hurtling through the air and into a pile of garbage bags at the end of the alleyway. “But you can certainly try. And that should have killed you.” She barely finished her sentence before the girl got up and teleported toward her in a sequence of rapid bolts. Gretel calculated and dodged out of the way at the last moment, catching her by the neck and slamming her into the brick wall.

“You’ve got to move faster than that,” the girl remarked. She whipped out a Dalishkova short sword from a scabbard on her back, twirling it around in her palm like a propeller, then swung upward to cut the phase unit from Gretel’s wrist.

“What the-”

“Made you look,” the traveler grinned, catching the girl by her own throat this time and slamming her into the wall.

“You’re not an anomaly.”

“No shit.” The girl twirled her sword around and returned it to its sheath. “What’s your name?”

“Gretel.”

“Name’s Marceau. Pleased to meet you, love.” The girl released her grip on her neck and whirled around to grab the phase unit from the ground, but Gretel quickly extended a bolt of electricity out and recalled it to her hand. “That’s a neat trick,” Marceau remarked.

“Isn’t it?” Gretel fired a pulse from the unit at her again, blasting the girl into the adjacent brick wall. Her figure left an impression as the concrete exploded around her. “What’s so special about you?”

“I build things.” Marceau teleported behind her and tore her backward into the adjacent wall, then zapped forward to grab her wrist again.

“I see.” The German girl steeled herself. Her adversary seemed impressed with her strength. Even Gretel was surprised at her own resilience. It felt odd to be so perceptive, and yet she knew her powers here were amplified. Viktorium was a higher resonant frequency after all, which aided her in greater mastery of her powers. With her other palm, she produced a bolt of electricity that danced between her fingers.

“What the hell are you?”

“I’m the Master of Lightning.”

“That distinction only belongs to one man,” the girl teleported, first to her right, tapped her on the shoulder, then zapped to her left, grabbing Gretel by the braided pigtails and swinging her in a semicircle to smash her head hard into the wall. She tried to grab the unit again.

“Yes. He happens to be the one I work for!” Gretel fired a bolt to the right, then the left. Marceau teleported and dodged each. She stepped forward and turned, fired another several rounds. Zap, zap, zap. It was like trying to swat a fly.

“Aren’t you a lucky girl!” Then out came the sword again. Propeller-like movements sliced desperately at the air, drafts of tornado-like wind whirling around the young girl’s waifish body. Gretel was able to dodge each one, and every time she fired another pulse, Marceau dodged that too. Bright bolts of blue and static clung to the air in a storm of ringing electricity and steel as the two girls continued to dodge and parry, dodge and parry. Several moments passed before Gretel felt herself slowing down, though not quite as much as Marceau, whose teleportation jumps were growing less frequent.

“Just curious,” the German girl breathed, “how much more juice do you think you’ve got in that gauntlet?”

“Enough to take on you, sweetheart!” Marceau smiled.

“Foolish.” Gretel extended her arms outward and produced a gigantic bolt between both palms, stepping toward her adversary, whose eyes went wide with shock. The traveler began to back away as an electric storm surged through the alley. Gretel then raised her arms, sending the lightning upward to a fire escape. The lock on the stairs broke free and the entire structure came crashing down over Marceau, who quickly teleported away at the last second. Clearly still determined to get the phase unit, she zapped behind the German girl. Gretel anticipated her appearance and fired a bolt through the air just before she materialized. Her aim had been perfect. The red gauntlet on the girl’s wrist sparked and caught fire, traveling up the wire on her arm as she screamed.

“YOU BITCH, do you have any idea what you’ve just done!” The girl suddenly began to flash in and out of visibility while struggling to tear the gauntlet free. Gretel leaned in to help, but Marceau smacked her hand away. “Don’t touch me!”

“You started this fight.”

“You fried my regulator! Now I’ll never find my way back!” The sound of shredding metal filled the air as she finally managed to rip off the steaming gauntlet and toss it aside with a clang along with the flaming wire. She stopped flashing and maintained full visibility.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m not from this frequency, you idiot!”

Gretel gasped. “How is that possible?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” the girl whimpered.

“I’ve seen a lot of things lately that are hard to believe. We can figure this out. Let me take you to our lab, I can help you.”

“You can’t!” she huffed. “I need to get back, I can’t stay here or my work will be ruined! Would you mind giving me a jump? Please!”

Gretel was incredulous. She still had so many questions for the teleporting girl. Who was she? Was she associated with the Dalishkova? If not, where had she acquired the gauntlet? Where did she live? Did she have knowledge of other frequencies higher than that of Viktorium? Did she know if the dead showed up on them? But Gretel knew that now was not the time. It was far past curfew, and she had to make it back to the lab before Tesla woke up. Besides, she got the feeling that this would not be the last time her and Marceau crossed paths. She swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded.

“What frequency?”

“705 Hertz.”

“Okay. We never speak of this to anyone, deal?”

“Deal!”

Gretel held out her hand. As Marceau took it, she sent a bolt of electricity surging down the traveler’s arm. The girl vanished into thin air without a trace. Gretel exhaled and blinked several times to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. She’d never seen anything like it before in all her days. Certainly no lab experiments with Tesla could compare. What she found most curious was the revelation that the girl did not exist on Viktorium’s frequency. If that were true, it meant she wasn’t actually teleporting at all. She was dialing down. ‘I can’t stay here,’ she said. But what could that mean?

A chill swept down the German girl’s spine at the thought. What if an entire new alternate world existed that they were unaware of, just the same as how Earth dwellers were oblivious to the existence of Viktorium? Even more terrifying, then, was the subject of anomalies. On the subway, Ermina had mentioned something about what they might want. Suppose some of the anomalies were not anomalies at all, but other people living on a higher frequency that had somehow meshed together in part with Viktorium? What if Marceau was a traveler sent to survey it? 705 Hertz wasn’t too much higher in range. Crossover was not entirely unheard of either, being that in the early days of Viktorium’s founding before phase units were perfected, the act of overzealous dispatching had created unintended consequences on the Earth plane. Was it possible the Dispatchers were still doing the same, this time by destroying a higher frequency?

Gretel shook her head. The thoughts were too overwhelming, and it was time to get back to the lab. But before she did, her eyes fell to the burnt, shredded hunk of Dalishkova gauntlet Marceau had torn free from her arm. If any answers were to be had regarding the young traveler, perhaps the crude bit of crimson-colored armor might tell them something. She quickly snatched up the object and scampered back out of the alleyway to grab the overcoat she’d left behind a few blocks away.

Just as she rounded the corner, a sudden twist of metal followed by a loud crash emanated from behind her. The rest of the fire escape had torn off the side of the building and fallen to the ground. Gretel closed her eyes with a sigh.

“And the Master of Lightning causes thousands of Francs in damage. Perhaps you’re right, old man. I shouldn’t leave the lab after all.” Klaxons on the street ahead of her suddenly began to blare, and red flashes illuminated every corner. “Shit!”

She ran back to the lab as fast as her feet would carry her.

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House of Rats – Part 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing important.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, now that’s bloody smart.”

“I will! I’ll do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s nothing, I swear!”

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

“Don’t kill me, please!”

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

Severo sighed. “Igor, let him go.”

“Excuse me?”

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

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

“And why should I do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all things would come in time.

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

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

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

Olivier was beginning to calm down.

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

The knight smiled. “Rest, my friend.”

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

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

“They watch over us all.”

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

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House of Rats – Part 1

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

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

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

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

“Give him time!” Max called down.

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?”

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re coming!” he called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m doing my best.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy Christ!” Lucien cringed.

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

“Where are you going?” Lucien stopped him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max shook his head. “This is wrong.”

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

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

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

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

“We’re compromised. Great.”

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

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

“In exchange for what?”

His friend pondered a few moments.

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

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

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

“Why would Igor agree?”

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

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

“Of course, I’m not stupid.”

“Right now, that’s debatable.”

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

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