Night of the Wolf – Part 9

The landscape was twisted and scorched, as if a flame had been pressed to the heart of a living thing and destroyed it long ago. Many of the more frail trees had fallen since his last attempt, and yet their branches extended upward, some as tall as the sky. His every footstep sunk into a thick layer of ash. Beneath that, the ground seemed almost to breathe. Vents of volcanic steam rose now and again in contractions like a charred, cancerous lung. Somewhere over the horizon, a gentle breeze blew, carrying the scent of a dead fire with it. Severo took as deep a breath as he could muster and ventured forth into the dark.

Thunder rumbled in the skies above as occasional lightning flickered through the clouds. It was a most accurate representation of Igor’s brain if ever there was one, and yet something seemed amiss. The prayer amulet…I left it with Edmond. During his previous attempts at diving into the mind of the young leader, Severo had grounded his psychic energy using the talisman as a safety net. Without proper extensive training—which he had not yet undergone, being that he was only an initiate—it was easy for the unskilled practitioner to get lost in the mind of the target, especially one so volatile as Igor. A shudder swept down Severo’s spine at the thought.

“Steady,” he whispered to himself. “Keep moving.” The knight plodded through a small section of underbrush just ahead and grabbed onto the hollow trunk of a fallen tree, using it as a guide to ascend to the top of the hill. The horizon above was bathed in a glow of orange ambient light, as if a forest fire were on its way to consume the remnants of the clearing below. His heartbeat quickened. Slow, steady breaths. If he did not stay mindful here, one of two things would happen; either he would grow so consumed with the perceived reality of Igor’s mind that he would get lost, or the psychic link would be forcibly broken. Neither scenario was ideal. The former could destroy Severo. The latter could destroy Igor.

As the young knight pressed on, he became aware of a series of flashes in the sky, followed by a whirling breeze. He had been told that storms were not an uncommon sight when melding with the mind of another. On the surface, they represented simple electrical activity within the brain, the firing of neurons and so forth. On a deeper level, however, they could also be indicative of a troubled or broken consciousness.

Severo proceeded with caution to the top of the hill. The scent of burning pine enveloped his nostrils. Ashes began to sink into the soles of his shoes as he struggled onward, determined to find the source of the fire. Something had drawn him to the top of the hill, though he could not explain what. Perhaps it was the deep yearning inside him to repair what he could of Igor’s fractured mind and render him at least somewhat susceptible to the possibility of psychic suggestion—or, at the very least, to force him into listening to reason. The knight fell forward as he reached the end of the hollow trunk and clawed the rest of his way on all fours to the top, grasping a tree root that jutted out for support. Hoisting himself upward, he was able to roll on his side over the edge of the hill and onto his back.

“Finally,” he breathed. For a moment, he stared up into the dark clouds and felt the rumble of thunder pass from the heavens and echo into the ground, displacing the thickened ash beneath his palms. The physical representation of Igor’s mind was a rather different sensation from being in Viktorium. One felt like home. The other felt like death and suffocation. To that end, Severo again attempted to slow his breaths. Being upwind from the fire was certainly no help; his oxygen could easily get cut off, though the faint sound of traffic from the Metropoliès that had just begun to reach his ears was of greater concern. His concentration was failing. I’m not about to break the link yet.

The boy closed his eyes and listened to his heartbeat—the only thing that remained constant between the two realms—and counted down from one hundred. Once the sounds of city traffic were no more, he stepped to his feet to dust himself off. A forest was burning hot as the desert sun in the valley below, its strength spurred on by continuous lightning strikes which plowed through the center. No animals appeared to flee from the scene, which was odd, considering he had been taught that every human’s mind possessed some symbolic part of themselves which fled any notion of destruction. But of course Igor’s mind was very different…wasn’t it?

A pocket opened in the clouds above, releasing a torrential downpour over the length of the valley. The fire appeared to calm, although the young Dalishkova Knight felt far from a sense of comfort. The rain drenched his black hair and suit, pouring over every inch of his soft pale skin, even as the steam from the dying fire gave way to warmth. There was something deeply unsettling about this place. He turned his gaze back to the dead clearing behind him, a circle of darkness encased by trees that stretched up as tall as the sky. Something in the ashen breeze told him he was being watched. He could make out no distinct figures in the haze, and yet he knew someone was there all the same. He could feel it in the tangled branches, the indentations in the bark, the deep crevices between…perhaps it was time to go back.

“What are you doing here?” a voice spoke beside him, clear as day through the haze.

No…              

“Who are you?” the knight replied fearfully.

“Never mind who I am.” The figure dispelled the thick smoke around them, revealing his slender, skeletal form. The man was more pale than Severo and stood at least a foot taller, with shoulder-length black hair and blue eyes that struck a shiver colder than ice down the spine of the young knight. A silver prayer amulet hung around his neck. “What are you doing here?” he repeated. His gaze was fixated not on Severo, but on the valley below them, as if he refused to acknowledge him by sight.

“Forgive me,” the boy knelt down, recognizing the man as his superior. “I have reason to believe I am failing the mission which I have sought to complete. Igor is a great challenge. I knew this when I accepted my assignment with the Outlanders. Lately it seems to be getting out of hand. I thought that by melding with his mind, I might repair things.”

“I see,” the man sighed. His gaze on the valley had not wavered. “So you believe that where we now stand is indeed a physical representation of Igor’s mind?”

“I’m sorry?” The knight balked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand-”

“Your prayer amulet,” the man cut him off. “You seem to have lost it.”

“I…” Severo felt around his neck and shuffled to the ground in a panic, checking all his pockets until he again remembered. I gave it to Edmond.

“Such travels are not an undertaking to be approached so carelessly,” the man said, turning to Severo with scorn. The boy’s eyes were wide with fear. “Do not worry. I will say nothing of this meeting to my superiors. However, you are to travel to Helias at your earliest convenience to meet with the High Council. There are certain…issues which need to be addressed concerning your assignment.”

Severo sighed and turned his gaze back to the valley. It looked more like a crater now, where an endless expanse of smoke stretched as far as the eye could see. And lost somewhere in that void were all the answers he sought. “They breached the Cavarice wall last night. Mayor La Cour’s welcome gala is in two weeks, and I’ve yet to discover their plans. I promise you I’m close. I just need more time.”

“Everyone does,” the man smirked. “Unfortunately, I am but a messenger. It is not in my power to grant you anything. However, I feel I must warn you that should you choose to repeatedly frequent this place—in particular, without the aid of your amulet—you may soon discover that time will be the least of your concerns. There is a reason the Dalishkova forbid knights below a certain rank from engaging in telepathic ventures. Of course…if you wish to be a part of the Order, the real Order, a good lad such as yourself would steer clear of such things. Wouldn’t you?”

“Is this some sort of test?” The young knight felt his heart begin to pound. “You’re not actually going to-”

“It’s getting late, Severo,” the man frowned. “You had best return.”

“What if I…hey, wait!”

But there were no more questions to be answered. Severo lunged forward in a frantic attempt to catch him, though it was no use. A veil of black smoke rose to encapsulate the man’s skeletal form. When it dissipated, he was gone. The knight looked reluctantly back to the forest tree line from whence he’d come. If this were indeed a test, he had surely failed, and yet he at least took comfort with the knowledge that the Dalishkova elders would not pursue him so long as he remained in Cavarice. Still, he could not help but feel as though he were being watched somehow. And that was exactly it. How? As far as he knew, this was an accurate physical representation of Igor’s mind. Psychic telepathy would have been impossible from so far a range as Helias, which could only mean one thing—either the Dark Order held stronger influence than he thought, or there was a chapter of Dalishkova based at a secret location somewhere in the capital city. Perhaps I am not safe at all.

Just before he could finish that thought, a thin object whizzed past his peripheral vision and embedded itself in the trunk of a tree several feet behind him. Severo rushed toward the charred black husk to see what it was, but before he could, another came sailing just over his head. He immediately dropped to the ashen ground and gazed up at the things sticking out of the bark. Arrows. Shit.

The pale boy crawled the rest of the way through the powdered ash and rolled over the top of the steep hill that led back to the clearing. He tumbled downward on the slope face first, bruising his arms, back, stomach, and chest in the process until he caught himself on a rock halfway along and flipped onto his feet. He almost lost his footing again, though kept steady by hanging onto the same hollow tree trunk he had used to ascend. A raspy voice shouted from the top of the hill as he reached the bottom.

“Who goes there!” the culprit shouted.

But Severo was too terrified to look back. The sound of whirling traffic and wind again greeted his ears, and this time, he did not fight it. It overtook him like a tidal wave from the Sea of Helene, enveloping every fiber of his consciousness until it was impossible to block out. Once at the clearing, he ventured a final glance back just an arrow came to strike him between the eyes. The young Dalishkova Knight woke up.

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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 20

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

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

“IGOR!” the man roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t even matter now…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Yes sir?”

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

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

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

“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”

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

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

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

“I’m sure we will,” Gabriel muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Severo!” the man shouted. “Sev!”

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

“Get your hands off of me!”

“Sir, please listen-”

“That’s my son, you hear me? Sev!”

“The Outlanders are getting away!”

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

“Sir-”

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

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

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

Then everything went black.

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House of Rats – Part 19

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

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

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

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

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

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

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

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

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Igor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

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

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

“Cluck cluck!”

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

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

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

_______________________

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

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

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

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you all know those verses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

“But-”

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

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

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

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

“I won’t ask again.”

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

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

“On what charges?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Godspeed.”

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

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

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

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House of Rats – Part 16

Edmond yawned and ran a hand through his dark, crewcut hair, perusing various reports from the prior week that had been dropped onto his desk. It was always the last order of business he attended to after filing away his other obligations for the day. He was exhausted, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that something seemed off. A minor detail he had overlooked. He hoped it was just a stamp or two in the stack of papers, which didn’t trouble him much. He made sure to triple-check his work before the fatigue caught up with him. Still, it was odd. Like someone or something demanded his attention.

Captain Georges. What if he were alive somewhere? But of course, that was a ridiculous notion. They’d all watched him bleed profusely from the groin, and even Igor himself said he was dragging the boy off to kill him and have him cooked over a fire. It was difficult to believe the events had only happened that morning. Filing that report had taken Edmond nearly three hours, and he’d sacrificed his lunch break to do it. No stone was left unturned. Anything Pontius might have wanted to hear was in it.

Of course, he could never tell his district commander what he really wanted to; that in fact, Lucien Riviere had completely foiled him, bribed several high-ranking members of the Dispatchers force to look the other way, and in short, made a total mockery of the entire precinct. Not that Pontius could do anything about it even if he wanted to. Constance Renou was Lucien’s mother after all—the only fact which made him untouchable by the Cavarice justice system. One day, Edmond thought with a sigh. One day I’ll get you.

The young lieutenant was torn out of his thoughts a moment later by a stampede of footsteps out in the station hall. A hurried exchange of voices followed, and he swore he could make out phrases like “we’re in the shitter now” and “Edmond is not going to like this.”

“Sir!” Isaac at last turned the corner with Antoine in tow. “Sir, we’ve got a major security breach!”

Edmond jumped to his feet, feigning surprise. “Where?”

“Munitions storage, sir. Several phase units are missing!”

“WHAT!” The lieutenant’s heart began to pound. “That’s impossible, I checked the inventory myself! And that was long after Lucien left!”

“You may want to take a second look.”

A lump was building in his throat as they led him back through the corridor and down the long stairwell to Munitions. All the while, he kept thinking of how right they were, how his career was now on the line for multiple reasons, how yes, they were most definitely all in the shitter for this. How could it have happened? It’s impossible. That boy was barely out of my sight all afternoon. Then a more chilling realization began to hit him. What if it was one of their own? A Dispatcher under his watch, in their own precinct, at this very station. I would hang them up by their testicles.

“This can’t be,” Edmond said in disbelief. He hoped it was some sort of prank. At the very least, it would serve to wake him up so he could finish the rest of his reports in confidence and head home to get some well-deserved sleep.

“I didn’t think it was possible either,” Antoine explained. “Then the power flickered.”

“The power?”

“Yes sir,” Isaac sighed, unlocking the door and swinging it open.

The munitions storage room was a converted storm cellar about thirty feet long and twenty wide with a gray floor and walls all around. Two rows of three concrete columns supported the ceiling. On the walls, footed by work tables, were silver racks of various equipment; everything from knives to utility belts, climbing gear, handcuffs, and more. Over on the left far wall were the phase units. Edmond counted again up and down the rack with his eyes to be sure. There appeared to be twenty. But just as he was waiting for one of them to yell gotcha, Isaac handed him a flashlight.

“Cut the lights,” the boy told Antoine. The entire room went dark, and Edmond shone the flashlight over the rack.

“One, two, three, four…what the hell?” Ten. Ten units were missing. “What’s going on!”

“I’ll show you,” Isaac said. “Lights up.”

Once again, there appeared to be twenty phase units.

“Here.” Antoine stepped over and pointed to a small black triangular-shaped device in the top right corner of the equipment rack.

“What the hell is that?” Edmond asked.

He handed the flashlight back to Isaac and climbed up on the silver work table. Given a closer look, he could now make out a small beam of light projecting outward from the base of the triangle. He placed a hand on one of the phase units, only to watch his fingers slip through it as if it were air.

“No…no, no, no!” he cried. Then he set his hand down over the triangle itself. Ten phase units immediately disappeared. A hologram. Edmond ripped the tiny black device off the equipment rack and jumped down to the ground, stomping it beneath his foot into a thousand pieces. So that’s what was in the black bag he gave to Quentin.

“LUCIEN!” he screamed.

_______________

A cool breeze could be felt in the night air as the Barreau boys arrived back at the mess hall for supper, out of breath and an hour behind schedule. They’d had to take a subway train out of the Metropoliès District, which by then was gridlocked with crowds of people heading home from their daily jobs. The underground was marginally more forgiving to travelers. Upon exiting West Central Station, they split into separate cable cars, finally reuniting two blocks down from their destination. All of it could have been avoided of course if Mayor La Cour had chosen an earlier meeting time. Still, Max was grateful. Given all the rushing around he had done from place to place since midday, it seemed a wonder he had any time to breathe.

Yet in the midst of all the surrounding chaos—the flickering lights, the streaks of shattered stars far below the Morcourt balcony, the sea of endless, chattering voices he now found himself swept up in—a trail of lingering questions continued to follow the young elder wherever he went. The heaviest of these was now the mayor’s proposal.

He had told the other boys of it while on the subway to avoid flying into a rage.  He’d even come up with a white lie, assuring them his decision stood firm—that he did not intend to accept such an offer. And though he told the same to La Cour himself, the truth of was far more complicated than he was willing to admit. What if I make the wrong choice? he thought. There was far too much at stake.

Deep down, Max knew he deserved better. What’s more, he wanted to escape and be embraced by a family who would love and take care of him—to go to school, to have the chance at a future, perhaps even a wife and kids of his own someday. But of course that’s what the rest of the Barreau boys wanted, too. And Max wanted it more for them than he did for himself. Besides, what kind of leader would he be if he abandoned the flock? He certainly felt no better about leaving Lucien in charge. In fact, he shuddered at the very thought.

He eyed the boy to his right, who towered nearly an entire foot above him. Those big blue eyes, the narrow nose, those dimples and that self-assured smirk, all generating an aesthetically pleasing face topped by a blond, curly mop. The kind of boy who had no trouble getting what he wanted. In an odd way, even his appearance was quite suspicious. Max wasn’t sure if he had always looked that way or if his perception of his fellow elder had simply changed since that morning, but something didn’t seem right about him. He felt less like a friend and more like…maybe that was just it. The reason La Cour’s proposal bothered him so much.

Max’s memories of his prior life were fuzzy at best, so he tended not to dwell on them if he could help it. But he could recall—or at least he thought—that he may have had a brother at some point long before his arrival in Viktorium. This ‘brother’, he was reasonably sure, looked nothing at all like Lucien, yet they would quarrel just as much. Max would always get into trouble because of things his older brother did; if he broke or stole something, little Maxy would get the blame.

And it always seemed to happen like that as they shuffled around from home to home during the months they weren’t on the streets selling newspapers. The moment they were taken in to a place he liked, his brother would do something stupid again that got them kicked out. Except for the last time, when they got separated. There was a fire, then a bright blue electric flash. Then Max didn’t have a brother anymore. If he ever had one at all, it probably wasn’t a blood relation, just another orphan he traveled with. Still. That was who Lucien reminded him of.

“Filthy rats to the core,” he muttered, turning to Bernard. “That’s what we are.”

“I still can’t believe he actually filled out adoption papers for you,” the boy laughed.

“Yeah. Stupid,” Max smirked. “I reckon I’d get bored pretty fast in a family like that anyhow. What do they even do all day? Sip tea and watch the world go slipping through their fingers?”

“I can’t believe you were dumb enough to turn it down,” Lucien snapped. “Here’s a man who drops a life of wealth and privilege right into your hands, not to mention the chance to live with a hot piece of ass like Cecile, and you actually said no? Idiot!” he smacked Max across the head.

“And you’re going to lead the whole orphanage yourself, are you?”

“I could,” Lucien said with confidence. “Probably do a better job of it than you.”

“Yeah, well unlike you, I think about more than just myself. We’re supposed to do this together.”

“Supposed to. Not required to, and besides, I don’t have to agree with all of your decisions about how things are done.”

“Nor do I, you, but good leadership is about knowing when to compromise. And communicate, for god’s sake!” Max shoved him. “None of us knew what was going on this morning until after your little stunt.”

“Sorry, Mum,” Lucien rolled his eyes. “I was too busy trying not to get us all killed by those little cannibal shits in the desert. But that’s why we have our own groups to look after, isn’t it? You do things your way, I do things mine. Although I happen to think that my way is better.”

“You would,” Max let out a nervous laugh. “It ensures you don’t have to think about how your actions impact the rest of us, or our living situation. I had to close the deal myself. Not like you give a shit about our reputation with the Outlanders.”

“Why should I? They were exiled for a reason. Don’t think they wouldn’t double-cross us the first chance they get. Besides, it’s about time we found some more reliable prospects that don’t involve us parading around like idiots in desert garb every time we need to cash in. Another reason you’re an idiot for turning down La Cour’s offer.”

Max ignored the last comment. “So all that radio talk about them reintegrating into society, that was just a means to an end? Not all of them are bad people. Some are even on our side, in case you forgot.”

“So you’d rather run back to a den of wolves and risk being eaten alive just to save one pup because he’s good? Jesus, you and La Cour have martyr syndrome! What are you so afraid of, anyway? That people will hate you if you fly the coup?”

“No, I just-”

“Then stop feeling guilty! No one here would blame you. Everyone uses each other in this world Max, for better or worse. If you didn’t know that by now, you’re either incredibly naive or flat out stupid. I’m beginning to think the latter. You’ll agree to steal his phase unit when he’s handing you the whole bloody house? It’s not a difficult decision.”

“It is if you’ve got a conscience.”

“Conscience is what has held our mayor back, and it will hold you back too!” Lucien retorted. “You’ve got to accept that we can’t help everyone who comes banging on our front door. This world was fucked long before we got here. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about.”

Max took a deep breath and swallowed the burgeoning lump in his throat. It couldn’t really be coming to this. And yet the more he considered the events of the past several months, all the signs were there. His friend was no longer the easygoing, optimistic idealist he once knew. On those occasions he was, it seemed to be more of a front. Otherwise, Lucien had grown oddly secretive, demanding, and sometimes mistrustful. It was hard to know when he was even telling the truth anymore. No use in keeping the pup who eats the whole litter, either.

“Well Lucien, it seems we’ve both made our choice,” the elder sighed, steeling himself even as he broke a sweat. “Once we divvy up the funds from the mayor’s phase unit, there is a vacant building across the canal. You could open your own orphanage and over the next month, we’ll see who does better. Loser gets exiled.”

“Challenge accepted,” Lucien smirked.

“It’s not funny.”

“No, but what is funny is that I’m already several steps ahead, and you’re completely oblivious.” The tall boy then turned to whisper in his ear. “Just between us, you may want to do a proper head count, yeah? Looks like you’re missing someone,” he smiled, patting Max on the back.

The young elder’s mouth dropped open as the line crept into the narrow hall. He had forgotten to do a count of his boys before they left the subway station platform. They’d split off into groups of two or three several times while maneuvering through the throngs of people to make their way back to the surface. He had done a rough estimate with his eyes, but they needed to be absolutely sure no one was left behind, lest they get caught alone by the Dispatchers; not all of the boys’ citizenship documents were finalized yet. That was what he’d wanted to discuss with Cecile before being held up by the mayor, but of course by then it was too late. He proceeded to count in his head now as they neared the food court. Marcus, Hugo, Tomas, Louis, Marcel…

Lucien was right.

“Hey Bernard…” Max gasped. “Have you seen Quentin?”

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House of Rats – Part 12

In the center of the city just outside the Metropoliès, there stood a lab with a glass ceiling bathed in darkness. And in the center of that lab sat a pale, shirtless thin man of forty-three years with smoke emanating from his skin. He took a deep breath and repositioned himself upright in the chair, allowing his heart to slow before exhaling calmly in the cold silence. He opened his eyes.

The familiar form of his young German assistant scattered the shadows around them as she stepped out from behind the control panel of his electric coil. Gretel was not the prettiest girl, though she was certainly not the ugliest, either. Her braided blonde hair sat rigid like a doll’s on her head, ending into two unremarkable pigtails draped over her shoulders. Her dress was hideously plain in appearance, her gaze intense.

But underneath it all, she possessed a certain power never seen before by the likes of any man on Earth. This power—the manipulation and production of electricity—had frightened her entire village so much to the point she was ridiculed by fellow classmates and neighbors, and later shunned by her own family. And that was precisely what had drawn the aging inventor named Nikola Tesla to the girl known as Gretel. Where the townsfolk had seen a witch, he envisioned a prodigy. Something akin to a daughter to whom he could pass on his legacy, for the inventor had no children of his own.

Still, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of fear in her presence. It was one of the few instances in his life that he felt such profound humility and reverence for another living creature; if she truly wished, she could destroy the entire city with a mere flick of the wrist. But Tesla knew for a fact that Gretel did not want these things. The only reason she had harmed people in her village was because they’d frightened her.

It was for this reason that the inventor did his best to keep her safely tucked away in his lab, though he knew it was far from a permanent solution. On several nights over the past month, he had awoken to discover she had ventured out on her own. He expected it would happen at some point—Gretel was a growing girl of sixteen, after all. But he feared what the Cavaricians might do if they discovered her power.

“Why did you stop?” the man asked, grabbing the towel he’d draped over the back of his chair to dry himself off.

“Coils were overloading again. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

Nikola sighed. “When will you learn to trust me?”

“All due respect,” the girl answered, “but unlike you, I can feel when there’s a problem.”

“I think I know my own coils just fine.”

“And I can feel the voltage surging through my own bones just fine. We have worked together on these things. Why can’t you trust me as well?”

“My dearest Gretel,” the inventor stood, sliding an arm into his shirt and buttoning it back up, “you know that I do. I notice you’ve been going out lately, and I don’t try to stop you. But this is still my lab. I’ll have the final say in my own experiments.”

“You have all the answers at your disposal, yet you refuse my knowledge,” she said, sparking a bolt of electricity that bounced between her fingertips. “Why?”

“Because that would be far too easy,” he smiled, grasping her shoulders and planting a kiss on her forehead. She was right, of course. But what was a mere mortal in the face of a goddess? Gretel knew such things instinctively, whereas Tesla was determined to learn through experiences encompassing trial and error. Aside from that, his mind experiments had become his most trusted method. What worked for them both were two different things. But he didn’t dare call himself the ‘Master of Lightning’ anymore.

“Now there was one other test I wanted to run,” he snapped his fingers in thought. A loud banging noise came from the thick steel door on the balcony above. They both turned their heads. “Ah, great,” Nikola sighed. “The woman of the hour herself. It’s open!” he shouted.

The wheel in the center of the steel door squeaked over to the left and slowly creaked open. One silky white leg stepped through, then another. Tesla could hear a series of audible grunts and curses echoing in the silence of the lab as the heavy door continued to drift outward at a staggering crawl. The hem of an emerald green dress also appeared out of the void beyond.

“Can I help you?”

“No, not at all, thank you much!” the woman snapped as she struggled the rest of the way inside. Only one person in all of Viktorium spoke with such a grating tone that made him want to stab out his eardrums whenever he heard it. “I see you’ve improved your coils,” she huffed, grabbing hold of the railing. “Spectacular piece of machinery. Edison would be proud.”

“What can I do for you, Constance?”

“You can build a proper door, for starters.” She flipped her golden hair aside with a gloved hand and readjusted the small black hat on her head. Her pale blue eyes gleamed bright, even in the dim lighting of the lab as she descended the grated stairs. “I was just wondering if you’ll be attending the mayor’s welcome gala this year, or if you have more pressing matters to attend to.”

“Regrettably, I don’t believe I can make it this time,” Nikola sighed, turning back to his work table to calibrate a phase unit prototype he had been working on for the mayor. It was a commissioned project he wasn’t particularly ecstatic to build. The unit was to be a measure of protection, and so came with a lethal setting—the only one of its kind, and the only one he vowed to ever build. Being responsible for a death in Viktorium was not something he wanted on his conscience, but he understood the mayor’s fear of another coup, and that was the only reason he had agreed to it.

“Everybody who’s anybody will be there,” Renou continued, testing his patience.

“And since when have I cared about who anybody is?”

“That’s what I don’t understand about you. You’re one of the most eligible bachelors in all of Viktorium, yet here you are holed up in your lab, which I pay for by the way, tinkering away with all of your silly inventions-”

“Are you here for a reason, Miss Renou?”

“I’m sure that little slave girl of yours doesn’t appreciate being treated like your lowly servant either,” she ignored him.

“Careful,” Gretel snapped, firing up a blue bolt in her hand.

“Oh come off it, dearie,” the woman smirked. “Your theatrics don’t frighten me. You ought to be in a school, you know.” She leaned against the work table, tossing her hat down. “With other children your age? Not cooped up in some dark corner like a lab rat with a man old enough to be your grandfather.”

“Harsh,” Tesla raised an eyebrow, tightening a gear. “I am sixty-three by Earth standards, but I hardly look it thanks to my electro treatments. Forty-three is my age in Viktorium. Or doesn’t she recognize that?” he asked Gretel. The girl shrugged. “You want to go to school?”

“No.”

“There, you see?” the inventor grinned. “She doesn’t want to go to school. It’s settled.”

“And what might she hope to learn from a man like you?” Constance challenged. “That obsession is the road to genius? Ha! I already wasted my years with a man who once thought as much, and I can assure you that will not end well.”

“Perhaps not, but without electricity, this city would not function. Neither would the whole of Viktorium, or the world beyond it. Neither would your trains, for that matter.”

“Oh I’m sorry, is that a threat, dearie? Remember who pays your rent!”

“Again, I could cut you off just as easy. And again, are you even here for a valid reason?”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” the woman huffed, stepping back from the table to wander about the lab. “Your Machine Men. They’ve been causing problems for me.”

“Really? What sort of problems?” Tesla had set the phase unit under a magnifying glass to rearrange the wiring. The output wasn’t yet functioning at the level outlined in the mayor’s letter.

“We’re building a southeast extension on the rail to cut around other throughways.  Part of the line extends into your junkyard.”

“I’m curious as to why you have to cut into my junkyard in the first place,” the man sighed. “I thought we established these boundaries long ago.”

“And they still remain. The line itself will not drift into your yard, but it still travels above it. That means steel girders must be placed on the ground level to support a bridge. Your Machine Men have already put four of my best workers in the hospital, nine others have been taken. God only knows what they’ve done with them!”

“My Machine Men have a will of their own, but they defend my junkyard from scrappers regardless,” Nikola said, tightening the last screw and strapping the phase unit on his wrist. “Of course…you could always have asked me to instruct my Machine Men to do the building for you, rather than going behind my back, thus ensuring the untimely disposal of your workers. They can get pretty grisly,” he cringed.

“Ugh!” Constance fumed, snatching her hat off the table. “I am finished with you! You both can expect a visit from my personal Dispatchers. I think you might find they like to get a tad grisly as well,” she smirked. “Cheerio, darling.” She shook Tesla’s hand mockingly. “It’s been quite a pleasure.”

“Indeed it has,” the man smiled and activated the phase unit.

“What the hell is this?! What have you-”

A flash of blue electric light sparked up, and Constance Renou exploded into a hot heap of translucent white goop. Globs of sticky, burning organic matter clung like egg whites all over the inventor, the remains of what had been her hand still stuck to his arm in the form of a melting gelatinous substance. The woman’s face continued to dissolve away in the multicolored puddle of soup, eyes coagulating with her nose and lips in a waning expression of bubbling terror.

“Ah, yuck!” Tesla exclaimed, shaking the goop off his arm. He frantically tore out of his shirt to wipe down the rest of himself. “That one went really bad!”

“Sorry,” Gretel sunk her head.

“Not your fault,” the man grumbled, tiptoeing over the steaming puddle. “The organic matter ratio must be off, so when the highest charge of electric particles hit, it just…does whatever the hell that just did! The mayor wants a phase unit that will dispatch living tissue, but without Charles’ original plans, there’s just too much guesswork involved.  Of course, why make it easy for us when you can complicate the shit out of everything!” The man threw up his arms in frustration. “This hardly teaches us anything about how it would react to a real person. And now this damn thing needs to be cleaned,” he sighed, unstrapping the phase unit and tossing it on the table. “Yet again.”

“Nikola?”

“Hmm?”

“Look.”

The puddle of white goop on the floor was beginning to coagulate further, bubbling up just enough for a slight form to emerge. Tesla’s mouth dropped open. A dome shape was rematerializing out of the hot liquid, soon taking the form of a human skull. As the eye sockets drained, its bright blue eyeballs reemerged. The inventor immediately scrambled back to grab a revolver from his work table and pulled back the hammer to take aim. But he and Gretel stood frozen in curiosity for several moments exchanging glances, too intrigued to look away or attempt to destroy it. Neither of them had seen anything like this in the previous tests.

Once the skull had formed, further layers continued to carve themselves out atop the framework. Muscles, cartilage, ears, a nose, a mouth, hair. But it was not the Constance Renou either of them had programmed. This was more of a botched mess devoid of any element of perfection—maybe what Constance would look like if she had been born with massive facial deformities. Still, that face looked up at them, eyes wide with terror. Then it began to shriek the most horrible sound.

“Fuck!” Tesla wasted no time firing two shots into the head, but it was no use; the bullets just absorbed into the gel. He reached for the phase unit to try dispatching it again. No luck. Gretel tried as well with her own powers. After that failed, the inventor finally fired up his blowtorch and blasted it further until it melted into a hot, sticky, tar-like mess. They finished off with fire extinguishers. No movement persisted from the remains.

“Sorry,” Gretel said again.

“About what she was saying,” the man slumped back against the wall, wiping his face with a handkerchief. “You really think you’re my slave?”

“No. I programmed her a couple months ago before I started sneaking out. Old feelings die hard, I suppose.”

“All’s well that ends well,” he smiled. “But you’d better stick around now, my dear,” Tesla huffed. “We’re back to square one.”

“You think the unit will be ready for La Cour’s gala?”

“I sent the blueprints to the Dispatchers earlier so they’ll deliver them to him personally. Hoping the excitement will hold him over in the meantime while we figure out this mess. Let’s get back to work, shall we?”

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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 6

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

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

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

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

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

“All right Quent, calm down.”

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

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

“Where are you going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quentin-”

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

“Quent!”

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

Max slapped him across the face.

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

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

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

Quentin nodded.

“Thank you.”

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

“You’re going through the alley?”

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

“Yes sir!”

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

“You know I hate this ladder!”

“Why the courthouse?”

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

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

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

“What if the Dispatchers take Quentin for questioning?”

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

“Of course not!”

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

“Careful out there, mon Capitaine.”

Max saluted him and went on his way.

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House of Rats – Part 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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House of Rats – Part 4

ONE HOUR AGO . . .

Lucien trudged his way through the hot desert sand with his group of orphans in tow as the two remaining Dispatchers escorted them back to the city gate. The officers were still clad in only their undergarments—something he knew Edmond, the Second Lieutenant, would have quite a time explaining to his superiors. Still, the young orphanage elder was grateful for his loyalty. Sacrificing the captain must not have come easy for him. There were many moments during which Lucien had grown fearful that the ruse would fail. His act hinged on multiple parties, not all of whom had cooperated as expected. If a single domino fell, the entire structure would collapse.

On the one hand, there was Max Ferrier—by all accounts his only true friend, though still too naive, overconfident, and goody-goody to be trusted with the truth. He was not much more than a pawn. On the other, there was Igor—the villain, and therefore the most uncontrollable variable. Thank god he had come through. Many other allies existed in Lucien’s game of course, most of whom had been bribed onto his side. Edmond Fache was one such ally. He couldn’t help but crack a smile at the sheer depth of his handiwork. They were all such fools.

The truth of the matter was that the boys of Barreau Orphanage didn’t have to set traps and steal Dispatcher equipment to survive. All the money they needed for monthly upkeep or renovations was locked away in a safe in the main office back home—or at least it had been until Lucien began appropriating the funds elsewhere for his duration as treasurer. “We’re cut off,” he had told them on the same day the City Commission had shut down the Barreau District. The timing was perfect, and they never stopped receiving grant money. Because of this and the black market trades of stolen tech wares the orphans brought home, he had amassed a small fortune.

Lucien enjoyed having carved out his own personal slice of the world. To him, it was fair justice for having endured a childhood of no-name misery. He could have easily inherited everything; stocks, corporate bonds, full shares in the largest corporations in Cavarice including DuPont Steamworks, if only his mother hadn’t dumped him off in Barreau following the Workers’ Rebellion and subsequent coup. The only thing she ever gave him was a new surname, and that was useless. “It’s to keep you safe,” she insisted.

Safe from what? Wealth and power? A suspected blood relation to the most well-known criminal in all of Viktorium? His birth name was a badge of honor! And to think she would have kept the identity of his father a secret forever. Ha! It hadn’t been too difficult. The man had sent a coded telegram to a safety deposit box two years prior. Lucien could hardly believe his eyes the moment he read it. By some miracle, his father had survived a death sentence carried out by his own private Dispatchers. For all intents and purposes, they had murdered him. Now he was reaching out across the frequencies to his only son.

It was at this revelation that Lucien began what he had come to call his ‘Great Work’. This new slice he was carving out was not just for him alone. He had to prepare a place for his old man’s triumphant return. Together, they would breathe new life back into Viktorium as father and son.

They approached the north gate at last. The rest of Lucien’s crew were panting and shuffling their feet on the verge of collapse from dehydration or heatstroke—maybe both—but neither he nor the Dispatchers seemed as fazed. He had warned his team to pace themselves once they’d left the villa. There was only one canteen of water to share amongst them. Still, he was tired as well. Dealing with Igor half the day had been a nerve-racking experience he didn’t wish to relive for quite some time. Neither, for that matter, was the memory of what the boy had done to Captain Georges. Yeesh.

He gazed up at the massive two hundred-foot gate which loomed above. The city wall was a reinforced stone structure surrounding all of Cavarice with four main points for entrance and egress. The north and south gates typically remained closed; the City Zoning Commission had scrapped an adjoining highway that would have connected the city to the provinces of Falvarre in the north and Helias in the south. A team of fifty Dispatchers patrolled the wall at all times with phase units drawn, especially on this side. They never knew when the Outlanders or some other foreign threat might attempt a break-in.

As Lucien waited for Edmond and Isaac to appeal their superiors along the wall to open the door and let them through, he wondered if Max had made it safely out of the villa. He certainly hoped so. Not so much out of genuine concern than for the fact that Max was still a necessary component of his greater plan to take control of the city. But to that end, he needed the equipment his young friend was now sneaking through the tunnel which ran twenty feet below them back into Barreau District. Then the revolution could begin.

“Just open the bloody gate!” Isaac shouted, tearing him from his thoughts. The three squads of Dispatchers patrolling the north gate had fallen into fits of laughter upon seeing them in their underwear, trailed by a crowd of tired children.

“Igor eat your clothes this time?” one of them called down.

“Aw look, you’re so generous to the orphans you gave them your clothes!” another chuckled.

“Wait a second, where’s Georges?” asked yet another.

“At least one of you has his head on straight,” Isaac muttered. “Pascal, the door!” he demanded.

“Oh, right. Sorry!”

A few seconds later, the group felt a thunderous tremor beneath their feet as the many locks and magnets began to shift below. The massive gate roared open, and with it, a loud reverberating boom sounded across the length of the wall, ejecting dust from the cracks between the stones. It was one of the great technological marvels in the city, soon to be replaced by something even greater—Tesla was rumored to be working on an electromagnetic force-field. Lucien took a moment to marvel at the times in which they were living. Back in the world from which they all originated, it would have been deemed sorcery.

All seemed to be going well for their reentry until Pascal suddenly halted them at the gate. An exchange of nervous glances and whispers ensued among the two Dispatchers ahead of the group with the other squad. Edmond glanced back apologetically, choked up over something that was said. They were thrown a pair of spare trench coats in the meantime to cover up. Isaac continued through, but Edmond lingered behind to inform Lucien of what was going on. The two made sure to speak well enough away from the group of orphans so as not to be overheard.

“Our District Commander is patrolling the wall,” he sighed. “I can get you through, but not without a lengthy checkup. We could be detained a while.”

“All right, no harm,” Lucien shrugged. “Nothing incriminating here. Our boys are smuggling in the equipment underground as we speak. What’s got your balls all shrunk?”

The Dispatcher swallowed hard.

“This District Commander is…recently retired.”

“Pontius?”

Edmond nodded.

“Christ.” Pontius was a former captain of the Dispatchers who could lay waste to their entire operation with the mere bat of an eyelash. He was ruthless, cold, stubborn in the pursuit of justice. Few things escaped that stony gaze of his, and whatever did didn’t survive long. He often buried everything in procedural paperwork as well, documenting every detail down to the last microbe. Since they were entering the city under the guise of rescued hostages, Lucien could only imagine how much time he’d waste constructing an official report.

“Let me do the talking,” Edmond insisted.

“Sure. At least until you fail and I have to pull out my mother’s card again.”

“I’d prefer you didn’t. We’re all trying to make our best impression on him, and…what the hell do you think you’re doing!”

Lucien had already turned away, charging toward the gate with dogged determination. It was like this every time he had to deal with the Dispatchers. Always the same reasoning. ‘You don’t understand the pressure’. He’d heard it enough growing up with his mother in the political sphere as she snuck him through the shadows and catacombs below the city to keep his existence a secret. This is about the fate of an entire city, not just you. You’ll understand when you’re older. It was something the orphans were told every day of their lives. Lucien, however, was not an orphan, and a mere surname could convince him otherwise. He still had a fighting chance at legitimacy in Viktorium, unlike the rest of them, and he’d be damned if anyone would strip him of it.

“Excuse me, can we get through?” he barked, addressing Pascal.

“Not until Pontius gives us the go-ahead.”

“Fuck Pontius! We have trekked two miles without food or water, me and my boys.” His heart was beginning to race. “Four if you count us being dragged out of the city and treated like animals by those monsters out there. Now unless you want an injunction brought against you, I suggest you stand aside and let us pass!”

“Just a moment,” Pascal sighed, turning his back to discuss the matter with the rest of his squad. After deliberating for some time, they scattered off to the left just out of sight. Lucien paced around in aggravation, muttering curses. Who the hell are they to tell me what to do? Surely they know who my mother is! Edmond grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him aside.

“You have no authority here!” the Dispatcher spat through clenched teeth.

“I certainly have more than you. Now take your filthy hands off me before you lose your job!” Lucien replied, swiping out of his grasp. He thought that sometimes, he ought to make a show of things to ensure no one caught on that they were more or less accomplices. Edmond quickly countered and dragged him back.

“You want to go to prison? I can make it happen!”

“I’m sorry, how much was your bribe again?”

“What the hell is going on here!” a deep voice bellowed from the gate. The two boys immediately tore away from each other. Pontius. Lucien did his best to remain still while his heart thudded away in his chest. The heat of the argument combined with the desert air wasn’t helping matters. His nerves were crashing back into the same chaos as a half-hour ago when Igor was playing slice-and-dice with Captain Georges. No sudden movements, he reminded himself. Not that the veteran’s personality put him off—he could handle that. But the older Dispatchers tended to be far more trigger-happy than the novices thanks to their service during the Workers’ Rebellion.

“N-nothing,” Edmond stammered.

Pontius squinted in the sunlight and lumbered toward them with suspicion. His leg had been crippled beyond repair during a fight in the coup, and he walked with a cane. Half his weight sunk onto it with every step. Up close, his face was a boulder; cracked and battle-torn, full of scars and canyons that made him appear a decade older than his forty-three years. It certainly served well to intimidate. Lucien could imagine Igor peeling the skin off his skull with a dull blade and laying it out to form a perfect topographical map of the desert.

The two boys hung their heads low as the district commander paced an uneven circle around them.

“Where is Captain Georges?” Neither of them answered. After several seconds of silence, he raised a hand and whacked Edmond across the face so hard that he nearly fell over. “For god’s sake, you’re a Dispatcher! What the hell happened out there?!”

“Please…” one of the boys in Lucien’s group whimpered. He had been rocking back and forth for some time now, his breathing rapid. “Water…I can’t…” The boy teetered backward and collapsed in the sand, but none of the Dispatchers seemed willing to budge around their commander. Lucien suspected it was for fear of making sudden movements. The man shot an accusing glance back at them.

“Will someone get the kid some water? And you can bring them the whole bucket while you’re at it. Jesus,” he breathed, training his eyes back on Lucien. “Well well, if it isn’t the good Mr. Riviere. Your reputation precedes you.”

“Good to know,” the elder smiled.

“That’s not a compliment,” the man spat on the ground. His breath stunk of chewing tobacco. “Perhaps I should ask you what happened, since baby Edmond here is about to wet his pants. You got anything?”

“Yes. Sir, my boys and I were kidnapped and taken as hostages by the Outlanders-”

“Oh no, no, no,” the man chuckled, cutting him off. “Do I look that stupid to you?”

“Sir-”

“Don’t answer that. Like I said, your reputation precedes you. You still got your Level One pass, right?”

He nodded.

“Need to see proper ID to let you in.”

“Given the circumstances I just described, I do hope you’re kidding.”

“Do I look like I’m kidding? Two of my officers are missing their phase units! Proper precaution, you understand.” The commander set an elbow on his cane as he knelt and patted loosely down the boy’s trousers, finding the wallet bouncing against his left outer thigh. “Take it out.”

“Take what out?” the boy grinned.

“You fuckin’ smartass,” Pontius rolled his eyes, bashing him in the shin with his cane. “Remove the wallet.”

Several of the Dispatchers laughed—perhaps none more than Edmond—as he yelped and stumbled backward, digging out the thick fold of leather to place it in the commander’s calloused hand. Pontius turned his back to the sun and thumbed through it in search of the document. He let out a bitter sigh upon snatching out the booklet which held Lucien’s pass, carefully reading it over and checking the watermarks to be sure it was legitimate.

“Appears to check out,” the man said, looking back. Lucien breathed a sigh of relief until he heard what came next. “Up until two months ago. Which means I get to detain you,” the commander grinned. “God, I love my job. Isaac, Pascal,” he called, snapping his fingers, “let’s get them inside the gate. This conversation is best had inside the wall. I wouldn’t want Mr. Riviere or his cohorts running off. Not that they’d have far to go. Edmond, would you be so kind as to escort him through the door? I mean…if you can handle that.”

Lucien smirked as Edmond shoved him along.

“Enjoy it while you can,” the elder whispered.

“Oh, I will.” The Dispatcher gave him a swift kick.

The other two squads proceeded to escort the Barreau boys through the north gate with Pontius leading the way. With Edmond’s knuckles buried in his spine and another hand clamped firmly on his shoulder, Lucien searched his mind for any explanation that might get the district commander to back off. He felt stupid for not having thought it through before. How would the Outlanders have taken them hostage in the first place? If he mentioned the tunnel in his story, Pontius would immediately send squads to flush it out. That would mean the end for Max, to say nothing of his little revolution.

Then it hit him. Quentin Vaugrenard. The boy was instrumental in carrying out the majority of Lucien’s dealings with the Outlanders. Whether they needed to trade equipment, dispose of threats, force cooperation, or more recently, gain him access to a private military airship hangar that even his mother’s Level One signature couldn’t afford, Quentin’s connections with the fearsome gang could do it all. The only problem was that he was now under Max’s watch, and Max looked after his orphans like a bloody hawk. Quentin had no way to sneak out without being noticed, unless…

Andre Casanov likes heroes on his stupid radio show, and Max likes to listen, he thought. If I can get there in an hour and out him, Max will run off to look for his documents. In the meantime, Edmond can validate my story and pick up Quentin himself before the other Dispatchers get on it. If Pontius asks how the Outlanders snuck us out, I’ll tell him we were blindfolded. He’s got nothing on an expired pass.

“Pascal, don’t forget to shut the gate since you clearly forgot to open it in a timely fashion,” Pontius ordered as they strolled through.

“I’m not-” the boy began to counter, then quickly remembered who he was talking to. “I mean, yes sir.”

“And yes, Pascal, I’m afraid you are stupid,” the district commander sneered.

“I’m sorry sir, I-”

“Save it, you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings, just do your damn job.”

“Yes sir.”

“Kids these days,” Pontius sighed, removing a metal flask from his pocket and guzzling down a shot’s worth. “That’s why they used to enlist orphans, because they’re smarter than you idiots. Aren’t you?” He turned to address Lucien and the rest of the Barreau boys. The thunderous rumble came beneath their feet again as the gate closed behind them, followed by the quaking boom. “Drop the act,” the seasoned veteran chuckled. “It looks terrible on you. We know you’ve all been working with the Outlanders.”

“That’s a bold accusation. What proof do you have of this?” Lucien challenged in a smug tone. “Rumors? Fine Dispatcher you are.”

“Man, I love this guy,” Pontius laughed. “He’s got a set of brass ones.” He downed the rest of his flask.

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