Night Of The Wolf – Part 31

Emilie slumped over the balcony railing with a yawn. The telescope slipped from her grasp, but she caught it at the last moment. She’d barely gotten any sleep since the night Igor decided to march his way into the city. From the looks of things, it had been somewhat of a disaster. The sandstorm had dissipated about an hour ago, which afforded her a better view of the west gate. At least four bodies were dragged out and incinerated by Dispatchers that morning. Six more came out once the sands let up. She worried, too, about Severo and his team. He seemed bold, confident, exactly the sort of leader they needed. Had he been among the fallen? She turned back inside and tried not to think about their food situation. If no one returned from the city, they could surely starve.

She turned back to the stairway, surveying the second floor before making her way down to the underground level they’d dubbed ‘The Pit’. It was hard to believe that just days ago, they’d staged a standoff with a squad of Dispatchers using the Barreau boys as bait. She missed Quentin, double-agent though he was. Most of her friends were now gone, save for Devonne, Leo, and a handful of others. Eerie to face such an empty house. But for what it was worth, she did her best to keep her promise to Severo and look after the others. Sooner or later, they would hear word of what happened. Even if she had to march into the city herself.

As Emilie rounded the last corner and proceeded to the basement level, Leo, the only twelve year-old among them, came rushing out to alert her.

“We’ve got a visitor!” he exclaimed. She readied her rifle and followed him down the dark, sand-covered corridor to meet Devonne at the end, who was already guarding the hatch that led back to the caverns. They kept it locked at all times for security. The bulb above it was flashing red, which meant the sensors detected someone on the other side. Whoever it was, Emilie hoped for good news. She took a deep breath as she pointed her rifle at the door and nodded to give Devonne the go-ahead. Her friend hit the button. The door slid open.

“Severo…” the girl breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the Salt God!” The young Dalishkova Knight smiled as she embraced him. He did not hug her back. What a strange boy.

“Emilie. Good to see you again. I see the fighter’s spirit hasn’t left you yet.”

“It’s waning,” she admitted. “We need to talk.”

“Yes, we do. How’s a walk through the caverns sound?”

“I could use it.”

The two proceeded through the underground system of caves for privacy once Devonne closed the hatch behind them. In many ways, Severo seemed anxious, which was not like him. The boy had shown nothing but poise ever since joining the Outlanders some months ago. They’d found him wandering around the tunnels. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, and yet something deep down was holding him together. It wasn’t up until a month ago that Emilie at last learned what that something was—his Dalishkova prayer book. But now as they paced the caverns together, he appeared to be without his amulet, and perhaps more gaunt than when he’d left.

“How have things been on the home front?” Severo asked.

“Lonely,” Emilie admitted. “But we’re holding things together. We’ll need more food stores within the next week.”

“I’ll send for them.”

“How many survived the wall?”

“Not enough, I’m afraid,” Severo sighed. “Only a handful of Igor’s team made it, but we’ve since amassed more recruits. I haven’t asked where he found them.”

“Probably that shit-stain Mordecai. Igor’s been squawking for years about getting revenge on the man for abusing him and stealing his girlfriend Abigail. Good on him if he slit that boy’s throat. I’d probably have done it myself.”

“My own methods aren’t nearly as straightforward,” the knight smirked. “What can you tell me about Abigail?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. Just that she’s a Japanese girl, and Abigail was a nickname they gave her because they couldn’t pronounce her real one. I doubt you’d be able to uncover much from the city records about her. Then again, you don’t see too many people of Asian descent in Cavarice. Chinese migrants, mostly. Why the curiosity? Or is that classified?”

“Just wondering,” Severo assured her. “Well, yes, I suppose it’s classified.”

“Look, I don’t mean to pry, but if you need someone to talk to-”

“I know,” the knight cut her off.

“All right.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but it is not your burden to bear. On another matter…you should know that Igor’s getting sick.”

Emilie stopped as they reached the subway tunnel. Much as she couldn’t stand the leader of their Outlanders gang, it wasn’t for lack of caring. She noticed, too, the despair in Severo’s voice as he spoke about the boy, almost like he was some sort of unsolvable riddle that would expire before he had the chance to figure it out. For better or worse, he had been their backbone. Emilie also feared the added responsibility of looking after the others, should anything happen to Igor. He was an insane mess, but he was a brother to them all the same.

“Sick in what way?” she sighed.

“I’m not quite sure yet.”

“Look at me,” Emilie insisted. “You always turn away when you’re lying.”

“Classified,” Severo uttered.

The girl rolled her eyes. “Well what the bloody hell do you want me to-”

“I don’t know!” the knight snapped. “But I’ll bring him back here when the time comes…sorry.”

“It’s fine…any idea how much time he has?”

“The way things are going, I’d wager a month or two. He’s fainted a couple times, and his nose bleeds. Good bet it’s something with his brain.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised, what with the way he thinks,” Emilie said. Severo remained silent. She wished so bad to chip away at his brain, but knew it would lead nowhere.

“Anything else to report?” His annoyed tone bothered her. Emilie brushed it off.

“Devonne and I have been watching the west gate. Dispatchers incinerated three corpses yesterday morning and at least ten this afternoon. I was going to ask if I should be worried, but it seems you’ve got things under control.”

“For the time being,” the knight sighed. “Look, Emilie…you should know that I’ve never been very good at articulating my emotions. The Dalishkova discourage it unless absolutely necessary. Some things are better left unsaid, because there’s nothing to be resolved by saying them. This is one such situation.”

“I understand,” Emilie replied. “We’ve all got our own shit to handle, yeah?”

“Right.”

“Just out of curiosity though, aside from telling me about Igor and asking for a report…why the hell did you bother coming back here?”

The knight hesitated. “I suppose because I view you as family, and as someone a bit more compassionate than my father. And because I just wanted to let you know…I’m all right.”

Emilie smiled and put a hand to his cheek. It was warm for once despite his pale, almost alien-like complexion. Funny. She always assumed he would be cold as death.

“It’s good to see you too, Severo.”

He grinned sheepishly and put a hand over hers to peel it away. “I must return now. Igor and Lucien need a fair amount of babysitting so they don’t kill one another. I’ll have Olivier bring you food rations in two days time.”

“Sounds good. Do take care of yourself.”

“You as well.”

“And may the Salt God’s tears keep you afloat.”

Emilie watched him depart back into the darkness of the tunnel from whence he’d come. At least the brief visit had given her hope, and perhaps a renewed sense of strength she desperately needed to continue. The Outlanders had made it to the other side after all. She only hoped her group could do the same before anything went south. But for now, they would keep a watchful eye on shipments of Dispatcher parts crossing the desert from the Falvarre province in the west. They’d need items to trade on the black market once it came time to leave that horrid villa. Perhaps with Severo’s help—or with whatever leader they saw fit to appoint next—they could build a new legitimate life for themselves in Cavarice.

Emilie returned to her spot on the balcony above to keep watch as Leo and Devonne joined her. She dug out the scrap of paper from her pocket that Olivier had copied down from Severo’s book of Dalishkova prayers. Together, they began to recite the Pinnacle. Her heartbeat quickened at the thought of the young knight. She hoped he would come back safe and sound. The more verses she spoke, the more she had undeniable faith.

My dearest, sweet Severo. I love you.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 30

But I might, Marceau now thought to herself. Somewhere into that darkened sea of blue that stretches for miles and miles. And when I get to the other side, I hope you will wait for me. It helped her to think of Cecile as often as she could between the bitter stings of loneliness and color. To envision that sweet, soft girl in the distance, untouched by the Machine Men and their metallic voices. Soon enough, she would be home free, and with a fresh regulator.

Marceau continued on through the sandstorm, creeping around a narrow mound of parts and to the left past a gutted bus. A Machine Man was patrolling the other side. She stopped and pressed her back against the front of it to peer around the corner. Another was approaching fast from the east. No time to move yet. Steady. She scooped a rock from under the wheel and hurled it behind her. It thudded off the roof. One of the machines leapt up onto the bus and slammed down hard, rattling the structure. Marceau ducked and slid beneath the wheel well. Her heart was racing so fast, she thought she might black out.

“Cecile, I know you’re waiting,” she sniffed. The Machine Man stomped toward the front of the bus and jumped back to the ground, planting its feet mere inches from her nose. The girl closed her eyes, about to accept her fate if it decided to lift up the vehicle. A metal hand grasped the bumper. “Not today!” she shrieked, rolling to her left as the bus rose above her. Marceau tore off the goggles and scrambled to her feet. She readied her sword. In a swift, fluid motion, she buried the blade into the back of the thing’s neck. Sparks rained down onto her, but she stood her ground. The machine bellowed an unintelligible sound and dropped the bus. She tore her sword free and ran back into the gusts of wind, cramming her goggles down.

A light blur approached from the west side as she neared her pile of scrap salvation. She charged the machine and leapt up to kick it down, slicing its head clean off as she went. Another came from behind. She slid to her back and planted the blade through its neck. Victory was within her reach in just a few more steps. Marceau raced over to the mountain of twisted metal, keeping a lookout through the gap. Both piles were flush against the wall, so she didn’t need to worry so much about the robots approaching from multiple directions.

She snagged two pocket watches from the scrap along with some phase unit parts—cogs, an old leather strap, batteries, the cleanest emitter assembly she could find, and a few wires of varying sizes she had to strip and cut to length. She fused most of it together with the emitter assembly to be sure it would spark. Success. Another skeleton lay pinned beneath several beams behind her, so she tore off its jacket to form a crude satchel in which to carry the parts.

“Sorry,” she breathed. “Not about to join you.”

Marceau tied the satchel to her shoulder and grabbed her sword for the journey back. She was finished with sneaking around, and that last bit of adrenaline from the bus hadn’t died down just yet. At this point, it would be easier—and safer—to stick close to the wall, rather than maneuver through the mountains of scrap in the center of the yard. The rest of the Machine Men would no doubt be more inclined to investigate their fallen comrades. She held her breath and snuck around the west pile and over to the wall. She drew her sword.

“Now or never.” Marceau envisioned Cecile. “I’m coming, my sweet girl.” She broke into a run, counting each pile as she went. There were about ten or so on this side until the main gate. Three came by with no incident. She dodged around a Machine Man at the fourth and continued on. Five, six, seven. Two more robots blocked her path at the eighth. Marceau jumped and sprung off the wall, somersaulting left and back into the center of the yard. They were catching onto her now, echoing their metallic chants from every which way. She flew past another mound of junk before one of them caught her satchel from behind and dragged her to the ground. Raising her sword, she cut the makeshift bag off her shoulder and kicked back to her feet, spinning around to land a hard blow on the back of its neck. Thank god for Dalishkova steel.

Marceau grabbed up the satchel, dodging another Machine Man blocking the gate. By now, she’d worked up enough momentum to get up the last pile and jump over the gate. Most of the mound was grating on the one side which had fallen to form a crude ramp, so it would be easy to run straight up and flip over, but the climb was steep.

“Here goes nothing,” she sighed, and ran as fast as she could. The first step nearly knocked the wind out of her, but she kept going. Her legs burned. The wind almost took her off balance, and yet she focused her mind on Cecile the whole way up. Up, up she went, kicking hard, though the grating crumbled behind her as two Machine Men pursued. All the way to the top. She prayed the wall was close enough. She prayed the parts she salvaged would work. She prayed she would make it back into her original body. She prayed she would see Cecile again. Please…

Marceau went airborne, feeling the brush of a metallic hand scratch her leg. She flipped up and somersaulted through the air, landing hard on her feet on the other side of the wall, safe at last. Pain rocketed up her legs and she fell to her knees. She double-checked the satchel to be sure all the parts were still intact and raised her arms in victory.

“YES!” she howled. “Yes, yes, YES! Fuck you!” But it wasn’t quite over yet until she reached the bunker, and those blasted heaps of clanging excrement were already pounding on the gate. If they broke through and detected her again, it would all be for nothing. She rushed back to the bunker and pounded the button until the doors slid open, making sure to reset the lock code once she was inside. The doors closed, and she slid down against them with a sigh.

Now it was time to get back to work. Cecile would be waiting.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 29

Marceau stirred as the intermittent banging noise continued on the bunker doors. She was phasing in her sleep again. Every morning was like waking up from anesthesia. A certain momentary awareness came and went, during which she’d feel a cold rush of air. The mattress beneath her disappeared and reappeared again in a torn state. Lights flickered on and off. Hypnagogic jerks often startled her awake at that point somewhere between the frequencies, and she could never be sure where she was. Several days of riding it out without her regulator had become torture. Once she was conscious enough to realize what was happening, she began to time the bangs on the door, counting the intervals between her phases.

“One, two, three, flash. One, two, three, four…flash. One, two, three, flash. One, two, three…now!” Marceau leaned over and reached for the injector gun on her desk before the next phase came and shot herself in the shoulder. She closed her eyes, listening for that terrible noise as she counted. Five seconds. Ten seconds. It didn’t return. “Back in Viktorium,” she sighed, propping herself up against the cold steel wall. She switched on the lights and looked at her right arm. The machine virus eating away at her flesh receded back down her bicep for now, though it had still managed to rise a little higher than the previous day. For better or worse, she was stuck with the constant reminder that her time was running out. “Fuck.”

The same infection had taken the others several weeks ago. Not that she’d been there to see it. Everyone was dead by the time she arrived. Soon enough, the great Marceau would be little more than a Machine Man herself, doomed to guard Tesla’s junkyard and protect the masses of the Metropolies from the very virus that claimed her—unless she found a cure. At this stage, it was doubtful. Still, it was nice to hope. She owed Cecile that much after lying to her. My sweet girl. I’m afraid the air is not so crisp here.

Marceau surveyed her room a moment to be sure everything was in order. Some of the frequencies she passed through during her phases had a tendency to look exactly the same, with minor variations. Even the dimensions of the room could be slightly off. She’d posted a large calendar on the wall to keep track of her flashes, as well as painting measurement tic marks across the middle of the floor. Thankfully, it remained the same seven-by-seven foot closet space she was used to. A loud bang came on the bunker door.

“Shit!” she shrieked, leaping out of bed. The floor was colder than expected on her bare feet. That meant the freezers were probably malfunctioning again, but it would have to wait. “You’d better not be an anomaly,” she sighed. She strapped a phase unit onto her wrist and headed for the door. Everything felt heavier without her regulator, and the weight of that steel behemoth was no exception. It took several tries to twist the centered wheel until she unlocked the bloody thing. “Goddamn it I’m an engineer, not a bodybuilder,” she cringed, pushing the door open just enough for her ninety-eight pound frame to fit through. She rushed up the few steps to the lab, flipped the breakers for the lights, and prayed as the holograph display booted up on her work table. A lone Machine Man flickered into view.

“Thank god,” she breathed. The robots only wandered outside the main gate of the junkyard if they detected something was amiss in the bunker. In this case, the malfunctioning freezers must have set them off, although Marceau’s presence in recent days was just as much a trigger. Another reason she needed a regulator—it scrambled her frequency enough so they wouldn’t label her an intruder. This, however, presented another problem. The parts she needed to construct a new regulator would have to be salvaged from the junkyard. That meant scaling the wall, unless…

“First thing’s first, let’s try to distract you, yeah? Freezer temperature is one degree Centigrade…damn.” She could dial it down as a temporary measure to draw the Machine Man away, but the conduits were still leaking cold air out of the coolers. She would have little time to sneak through the main gate and retrieve what she needed. If she was out too long and the temperature of the bodies rose too high, decomposition would reach a point of no return. After that, she could say goodbye to any possibility of returning to Viktorium permanently. Her own corpse had become something of a time capsule to her, a precious piece of herself she was desperate to preserve until such time she could inhabit it again. Even then, she wasn’t a hundred percent sure her plan for reintegration would work. The negative particle load on the piece of scrap metal she’d infected herself on was such that it tore across several frequencies. Committing suicide hadn’t been the solution she’d hoped for, although it saved her body and freed her to travel across other dimensions.

The girl wiped a stray tear from her cheek and focused back on the task at hand. “Lowering freezer temperatures manually,” she sniffed, jumping over the metal rail that separated the lab from the freezers. She set the dials back down and grabbed her cutoff trousers. The cold atmosphere of the bunker was something she’d grown accustomed to in recent days, so she was used to working in her underwear and a tank top. Hot oil and other mechanical parts provided enough warmth anyway. An irony that cold, unfeeling machines can give me comfort. And yet it was not the same as having Cecile with her. Soon.

The banging on the door ended abruptly as the holo grid showed the Machine Man turning away toward the main gate. Marceau snatched her goggles and head scarf off the work table, slinging a short sword over her shoulder as she rushed up the grated stairs to the bunker doors. She braced herself before pounding the button. A sandstorm was brewing outside, which meant lower visibility. She would have to fight off the Machine Man after the gate closed behind them. Phase units didn’t work on their reinforced casing. A direct blow to the back of their necks was enough to significantly disable them, but that only worked for a short period.

“Steady,” she told herself, and smashed the button. The doors slid open to a squall of whipping golden winds that nearly took her off her feet. Marceau adjusted her goggles. When paired with the regulator, she could see through almost any obstacle ahead, but the most they offered her now was protection from the elements. The dark blue hue at least showed the sandstorm in darker tones, while the Machine Man appeared lighter. Not ideal, but it worked. She would just have to stay within the gusts of wind to obscure her location.

Side-stepping into the flow of sand, she made her way forward, making sure to keep the robot in her sights. The Machine Men walked at a relatively slow pace unless they detected an immediate threat. Marceau considered kneeling down for a rock to hurl at the gate in hopes the thing would go faster, but thought better of it—their sensors could pick up on any movement coming from behind. She took to counting its steps to calm herself until it reached the door, following along in a zigzag pattern.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…come on, you metal hunk of shit,” she muttered under her breath. Her patience wore even thinner once she realized her counts weren’t accurate. “Fuck it.” Marceau grabbed her short sword and plowed through the gusts as the Machine Man neared the control panel. She got just close enough for it to enter the code, then waited until the gate began to open. Time to move. In a swift, calculated motion, she leapt up and allowed the wind to carry her spin, slicing through the air to land a hard blow on the back of the robot’s neck with her sword as it stepped through the gate.

“INTRUDER-!” The thing fell, bellowing in a metallic voice. Marceau somersaulted ahead and landed on her feet just in time to hear the gate crunch the machine in two behind her. A shower of electric sparks shot out, scorching her left shoulder. She winced and brushed them away. Son of a bitch. More of those ugly tin cans would be along soon enough to investigate. For what it was worth, at least the burns set off a nice bit of adrenaline. She continued on through the blur to locate her preferred pile of scrap on the west end of the junkyard.

Clangs of metal echoed in the distance as the machines went about their work, hurling heavy beams and crunching unusable parts into cubes. A large conveyor belt ran overhead on the north side, which was where most of them tended to congregate. Marceau clutched her sword tight and turned left around a tall assortment of jagged metal grates to be sure the coast was clear. Two Machine Men blocked her usual path, tearing parts from on old rusted clock. She was about to turn away and maneuver around them until something curious caught her eye. A lone skeleton lay buried beneath the clock, and a decaying foot poked out of the sand just a few feet further. The uniform on the skeleton was similar to those she had seen on the dead bodies in the freezer back at the bunker. These were not intruders, they were scientists who had worked maintenance on the machines.

“The plot thickens,” she whispered. One of the Machine Men dropped the clock and turned to face her. “Shit!”

“INTRUDER!” the robot bellowed through its casing. Marceau whirled around to see a third machine bounding toward her. She charged back, turning to the right of the screaming beast as he reached out to grab her, and sprung off the clock to the left, narrowly avoiding the one behind him. She whipped around the back of the pile and weaved right. The Machine Men were already bounding overtop of the metal heap to catch her, sending an avalanche of parts careening downward as they went. She dipped down and grabbed a handful of sand to toss in the air. It managed to throw them off her trail until she could hide behind a rusted-out Model T across the way. Marceau knelt to catch her breath.

“Fuck!” she whispered, pressing her forehead to the pommel of her sword. The scrap parts she needed were still two mountains away. She closed her eyes and listened to her own heartbeat pound in her eardrums. If she were to die out here alone, no one would ever find her. Cecile would never know what happened either. It would be as if she never existed. Not that it mattered. Marceau already felt like enough of a ghost to the outside world. Oh get a grip, she told herself. Not today.

The girl opened her eyes and rose to her feet, braving the gusts of gold until the clanging noise of the Machine Men faded far behind. She’d been walking through the dark for most of her life. This was no different, and yet the irony of color in her goggles amused her. She certainly felt just as blue in recent days. Navigating the sea of faces in Cavarice was akin to dodging the light wherever it stood, weaving in and out of intermittent periods of blinding black. But the brightest color in her world was undoubtedly Cecile. That girl was her sole reason for staying. Until they’d met, Marceau had very nearly resigned herself to death.

Mayor La Cour had hosted a birthday party some months ago for Vice Mayor Beatrice Castile. Marceau happened to be in the Metropolies at that time, observing the masses as she did whenever she got lonely. She’d stuck close to the Dispatchers when they did their rounds in the mansion. Not the most comfortable tactic, but one that proved necessary. Her regulator was not yet aligned properly, so she wanted to test whether or not they could detect her. If so, she could always duck into the nearest bedroom.

During her tour of the second story, the voice of a young girl caught her ear from behind a closed door. She seemed to be arguing with a male suitor, so Marceau had torn away from the squad of Dispatchers to listen in. When the door swung open, she learned it was not a male suitor, but her father. She was being belligerent and refused to come down for the party. The mayor let out a huff and plodded back downstairs with the Dispatchers in tow. Before the beautiful girl came to shut the door, Marceau managed to slip in and watch her from afar.

“‘It’s just a party, Cecile,’” the girl mocked, throwing off her shoes as she plopped in front of the vanity mirror. “It’s never a party when that rat bastard is here! ‘A blossoming girl like yourself should feel privileged for male attention!’ Maybe I don’t want male attention Daddy, you ever think about that? Women are supposed to be able to do whatever the bloody hell they want in Viktorium. Maybe I’d like a woman instead.”

By then, Marceau was holding back a smirk as she neared the mirror. Everything about this girl was perfect, and she was about to see just how perfect. The straps of her dress came off around her shoulders. It slipped downward over her chest exposing her cleavage, and then the tops of those two lovely, creamy breasts, almost to the nipple. That’s when the young traveler made her move with a single whisper in Cecile’s ear.

“Can I keep you?”

The girl reacted as suspected, immediately covering herself in terror.

“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL—”

“Shhh,” Marceau went visible and covered her mouth. “Don’t be frightened, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m a Dispatcher, I’ve been watching over you.”

Cecile giggled. “I doubt that. Besides, aren’t you a little short for a Dispatcher? What, do they recruit pervy little boys to spy on me now?”

“I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.”

“Take those stupid goggles off, they’re not helping.”

Marceau obliged.

“You’re Asian?”

“Japanese.”

“Pretty.”

“Don’t ever call me that. Ever.”

“Then what shall I call you? Handsome?”

“You can call me Marceau,” the girl smiled.

“I’m Cecile,” she said, shaking her hand. “Marceau…that’s more of surname, isn’t it? And how the hell did you get in here?”

“It’s…a long story.”

“If you tell me, I promise not to have the Dispatchers escort you out. Besides, I’m certainly not going anywhere, trust me.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 28

Thunder rumbled in the distance, followed by a downpour of rain that battered the orphanage windows. Max had just shut off the lights after settling the boys in for the night and plodded back to his office for a drink. All was quiet and calm. He savored such moments to collect his thoughts in the dark. It was rare he ever got time alone, so he made sure to make the most of it. A gas lamp burned dim on the edge of his desk, illuminating the soft amber of his whiskey bottle. The shadows were soft, yet sharp. For a few minutes at least, he could relax and pretend that everything was good, that all the boys under his watch were happy and the Dispatchers never bothered them. He liked to imagine, too, that Quentin was somewhere safe in a warm bed with not a care in the world. It was certainly easier than facing the truth of things.

He poured himself a shot and creaked back in his chair, staring at the fractals of light as they swayed over the ceiling. Perhaps Quentin had been adopted by a wealthy family. Yes, that was it. And the rest of the boys who had left with Lucien, maybe they, too, were taken into good homes by eager parents in the Metropolies. Living the good, privileged life, sheltered from all manner of danger. Proper schooling, career opportunities, dating and courtship, marriage, the whole bit. No losses, only wins. Not a care in the world. A loud knock came on the door, tearing Max out of his fantasy.

“Bugger!” the elder snapped through clenched teeth. It was nearly midnight. Who the hell would be visiting at this hour? Hushed groans emanated from the hall of boys across the way. Max set down his shot glass and rose up from the chair, strapping on the phase unit he kept on the ledge just in case. “Quiet,” he called. He headed for the door as Bernard stood watch over everyone. Another several knocks came, followed by furious banging. The elder closed his eyes and sparked up the phase unit. He twisted the locks on the door, cautiously reaching for the knob as his heart began to pound. In one swift motion, he swung the door open and prepared for the worst. A strong breeze splattered his face with rain as he squinted at the boy before him.

“Tomas?!” He extended his palm outward, illuminating the face of the child in a soft blue glow. Dried blood and bruises covered the length of his soaked, naked body from head to toe. The boy shivered in the cold as he cupped his genitals.

“Please let me back, Max!” the boy sobbed.

“Jesus Christ, come inside! Bernard, fetch some blankets right away!”

“I’m on it.”

The elder shut the door and led the child into his office to sit him down in the chair. Bernard returned promptly, draping a duvet and several blankets over him. Max turned up the gas lamp and set it at his feet for extra warmth and proceeded to dry the boy’s hair with a towel. As he worked his way down over Tomas’s shoulders and over his chest, the boy winced in pain.

“Careful around the burn!” he cried.

“Burn…” Max peeled the top of the blanket down to reveal a dark red, bubbling brand mark surrounded by dried blood in the shape of the letter ‘O’ on his chest. His heart began to thud in rage. “What happened? Who the hell did this to you?!”

“Dispatchers caught me with Isaac…”

“Why the hell would you fuck with Isaac?!” Max demanded. “Are you stupid?”

“Max,” Bernard shook his head. “Don’t.” The elder ignored him.

“You realize how much danger you’ve put us all in?”

“I’m sorry, I love him, okay?!” Tomas cried.

“For fuck’s sake.” Max grabbed his whiskey and poured shots for them both. “This should help ease the pain a bit. I was having a nice quiet time pretending all was well before you arrived. Lovely evening we’re having. I certainly hope your little tryst was worth it…sorry.” He handed Tomas the shot, and the boy gulped it down. “Now what happened?”

“We were having sex,” he shivered. Max rolled his eyes. “A squad of Dispatchers broke down the door and surrounded us…they took Isaac off the bed and made him watch as they held me down and branded me, then dragged him off. Afterward, they took me to the alley and threw me down, started kicking me all over…then one of them, he…” The boy started crying again.

“He did what?”

“Nothing, it doesn’t matter…I got away. Around the corner, not far,” the boy gulped. “They chased after me and I thought I’d be done for. They saw me…or they should have, I don’t know. They looked in my direction, but…it was like they didn’t see me, like I wasn’t even there. I noticed a damaged wooden crate lying out on the street that must have fallen off a truck. It was full of these pretty necklaces, so I took one.” Tomas reached under the blankets and produced a silver chain which held a pendant of a winged figure plunging his sword into a rock.

“Looks like a Dalishkova prayer amulet,” Bernard remarked, taking the object in his hand to examine the back. “Says something in Greek.”

“Give it here,” Max said. He had little experience with the language himself, though he did his best to translate. “Salt God, protect me from mine enemies…I don’t know the rest. You said you found a whole crate of these things?”

“Yeah,” Tomas shivered. “I knew I had to get away, and for a second, I imagined what it would be like if I was invisible. That’s when I found them.”

“Strange,” Max thought aloud. “It’s a good bet these are illegal. A Dalishkova presence in Cavarice would mean trouble for the Dispatchers. Did anyone see you come back here? They had to have, if you were walking naked up the street.”

The boy shook his head. “I just kept believing I wouldn’t be seen. No one bothered me.”

“The Dispatchers who did this to you, did you recognize them?”

“Antoine branded me,” Tomas whimpered. “He said I meant nothing to Isaac, that he’s been with plenty of boys. I loved him! I thought I was special!” he cried. The memory was clearly causing him more pain than whatever torture he had endured. Max knelt down and set his hands on his shoulders to comfort the boy.

“You are special, Tomas.”

“No I’m not!”

“Yes…you are. Look at me, all right? No one else can mod a phase unit like you. You taught us how to operate them, figured out how they work. When the power goes out in this place, you know how to fix it. Bernard and me, we’re not electricians. You have a brilliant mind and you know how to handle yourself in a fight. We couldn’t survive here without you.”

“I should have been stronger for Isaac, but I froze!” Tomas wept. “Why did I do that?! I never do that, I’m never afraid!”

“It happens to the best of us. Even when I was selling the parts to Mordechai this morning and Igor showed up, I didn’t know what to do. I cowered in the corner. Things happen and you’re caught off guard. It doesn’t mean you’re weak.”

“I should have killed them!” the boy snapped. “I want to kill them. Every last one of them should pay!”

“And they will,” Max assured him. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll head to the precinct. You need to make a statement about what happened-”

“Fuck the statement!” Tomas cut him off, rising from the chair. “Where’s my phase unit?! I have to go back out there and finish what I should have done!” The boy snatched his prayer amulet off the table and threw off the blankets, plodding nude toward the main hall. Max followed.

“Tomas, you’re in no condition to-”

“I don’t care!” the boy whirled around. “I have to save Isaac, if he’s even still alive. I lost the only person I love tonight! Doesn’t that matter to you?!”

“Of course it matters! But we have to be practical about this. Igor is still out there planning god-knows-what, and the last thing I need right now is to lose another boy on my watch. You matter to me too.” Several of the boys had woken up and stood behind him now, watching curiously from behind the door frame. Great, the elder thought. What is this, a mutiny?

“You’re pathetic, Max. Don’t wonder why I joined Lucien, because at least he lets me take action. Maybe that’s why I was scared. I’m too used to your leadership. Funny how you judge the upper class for what they do, yet you trust the Dispatchers to just handle everything?”

“That’s not true.”

“I don’t have time to argue,” Tomas shook his head, choking back tears. “I’m leaving.” He continued on to the back of the main boys’ hall as the elder followed with Bernard. A small metal rack sat near the fireplace at the far end to dry an assortment of clothes they’d brought back earlier from the laundromat. Tomas picked out what he needed and started getting dressed. Max weighed his next words carefully, considering all the boy had been through. Of all the places he could have chosen to go—and there were plenty—he still picked Barreau in the end over Lucien. Even if his allegiances were shaky, it was clear he preferred the familiar.

“You came here for a reason,” Max crossed his arms. “You asked to come back.”

“I know…”

“Look, I’m not going to stop you from leaving, all right? But if you do want to stay, my rule is that you get some rest tonight. Can you do that?”

“Yes. I’m sorry,” Tomas sat down to bury his face in his hands. He had managed to pull a pair of trousers halfway up his legs. Max helped him with the rest and put an arm over his bare shoulder, hugging him close. Louis snuggled up on his other side.

“It’s okay. You’ve been through enough for one day. We’ll figure everything out tomorrow, I promise.”

Several of the other boys crawled out of bed to join them in a semicircle around the fire while the storm continued to rage outside. Torrents of rain cascaded over the roof, bringing a relaxing ambience to the room. As the flames danced over the wood and Bernard brought out a few more blankets for everyone before plopping down with them, Max closed his eyes. Moments like this made it all worth it. And though none of them had any family left to speak of, it was enough they took care of their own. It was enough to honor Quentin.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 27

“Wake up, we’re here!” Edmond shook him.

“Huh? Right, sorry.”

“You sure you’re sober enough for this?”

“Yeah, give me your canteen.” The reinstated commander gulped down a few mouthfuls of water as they got out of the car and approached the precinct. “I’ll do what I can to free Isaac. In the meantime, I want you to keep Antoine busy and don’t let him leave under any circumstances. If I have my way, he’ll be sitting in a jail cell by dawn. Any word on Tomas?”

“We have two squads out combing the streets for him,” Dimitri answered. “So far, no sign.”

“It’s a safe bet he went back to Barreau.”

“Or Lucien,” Edmond rolled his eyes. “That Riviere fellow is holed up at the corner library down there. As far as I know, he’s got no permit for it.”

“Oh, I love a good ordinance violation,” Pontius smirked.

The trio made their way through the glass doors and into the main lobby. The secretary at the front desk seemed flustered as she scribbled over her paperwork and let out continuous sighs of exasperation. Edmond strode ahead and knocked on the counter to get her attention, almost causing her to spill her coffee.

“Antoine still here?”

“Yes!” the woman snapped. “Sorry, I’m a tad swamped at the moment. Of course it doesn’t help that Isaac’s mother came by while you were gone and gave me quite the earful. We tried to get her to leave, but she’s been down at his cell screaming all manner of shit for the past half-hour! She wanted me to phone his father, which I refused to do. But Antoine graciously did it, so he should be along any minute now, which will be just dandy!”

“It’s almost ten o’clock. Denise will be here shortly to relieve you. Stick it out, all right?”

“I’m trying,” the woman huffed.

Pontius reached into his inner jacket pocket and set his reinstatement forms on the counter with his flask of scotch. He had filled it before leaving his flat just in case, but he wasn’t about to trust himself with it on the job. The young secretary eyed it and flashed him a dirty look.

“I don’t drink, you know.”

“Trust me, you need it more than I do.”

The group made their way around the front desk, meandering through a maze of cubicles, busy detectives, and other Dispatchers. Edmond peeled off and headed for Antoine’s office while Pontius walked toward the back cells with Dimitri. Muffled shouting and cries could already be heard, even from beyond the thick steel door that sealed off the holding area. A lone Dispatcher stood guard in front. By the looks of it, he was a new recruit, maybe thirteen or so. Guard duty was standard grunt work for most initiates when they weren’t out fetching coffee for everyone else. Upon seeing Pontius, the boy immediately saluted.

“At ease, soldier,” the man nodded.

“Private Arthur Batteaux at your service, sir.”

“Your face looks familiar. Batteaux…you related to Pascal, by chance?”

“He was my older brother, sir.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. He was the bravest Dispatcher I’ve ever known.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ve got some big shoes to fill. Stick around awhile, maybe I’ll put you on a squad.”

“Of course, sir-”

“Enough with calling me ‘sir’. Go get yourself a coffee, huh?”

“Yes sir…I mean…sorry!”

“Forget it.” Pontius watched as the boy ran off, his face red with embarrassment. “There’s no way in hell I’m putting that kid on a squad. What is it with these rich, bourgeoisie parents, anyway? We’re not a goddamn reformatory and we’re not babysitters. Jesus, they send these kids to us before they even grow hair on their nuts anymore.”

“My parents didn’t let me join until I was fifteen,” Dimitri said, entering the code to unlock the door.

“Responsible folks. Wait, don’t open the door for a sec.”

“Why?”

“I just want to savor the low volume while I can,” the man sighed, collecting his wits before the inevitable hurricane. “All right, go ahead.”

The narrow hallway before them was an echo chamber of screams and wails emanating from the far end. The concrete and steel enclosure had been built long before the rest of the precinct and had soundproof walls, courtesy of Tesla. There were eight cells in total. Six of them could fit two occupants each, or fifteen if you didn’t care to make anyone comfortable. The remaining two at the end of the corridor were for solitary confinement. At least they’d given Isaac enough room, and had enough sense not to pair him with any other criminals. Dimitri locked the door behind them. Pontius immediately regretted giving up his flask.

“I can’t believe what a disgrace you are!” the boy’s mother shouted, rattling the bars as Isaac sobbed in the corner. “We thought joining the Dispatchers would help, all that talk of respect and honor you fed us. We were proud of you, Isaac! I thought you would complete your service, hmm? Marry a nice girl, give me beautiful grandchildren someday. I would have had your wedding all planned out, your father would have paid for it! But you ruined it with your vile sickness! YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!”

“All right, visiting hours are over, it’s time for you to leave,” Pontius said firmly. He tried to peel her off the bars, but she wouldn’t have it. Her son had curled into a fetal ball on the cold concrete floor.

“I’m not finished here!”

“Oh, I think you are.”

“Unhand me right now, or I’ll speak to your superiors!” the woman shrieked.

“And I’ll have you jailed for disorderly conduct. You’ve caused the kid enough damage for one day, he’s already been beaten to shit as you can see. You need to leave. Now!”

“He’s my only son and he’s ruined our family!”

“All due respect,” the commander twisted her arm, “but you don’t know what it’s like to lose a son. If you abandon him, it’ll be the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your life and it will haunt you for the rest of your days. Him fucking the occasional boy is hardly the worst that could hap-”

She slapped him in the face and turned around to spit on her son. “You’re dead to us, Isaac!” With that, she stormed out. Dimitri paced briskly ahead of her to unlock the door, even as she hurled insults back at Pontius and muttered something about having him demoted. Not like that could happen. The man cleared his throat and knelt down next to Isaac’s cell. All was quiet in the hall now, save for the boy’s whimpering. For the longest time, neither of them knew what to say. Pontius mustered up the courage in his heart as he thought back on his son. How could he calm this boy? It was the first such instance of any Dispatcher being jailed for homosexual debauchery. He hardly knew where to start, but he tried anyway.

“Hey, try to calm down, huh? I promise we’ll get you out of here soon. It’ll be all right.”

“It’s never all right!” Isaac cried, sitting up against the wall and burying his face in his knees. “Didn’t you hear what she said? I’m disowned! I’ve nowhere to go now. I have no family, I can’t go home. I can’t go to my flat, what if they kill me next time?! And they took Tomas…oh god, they took Tomas, it’s all my fault and now I’m nothing!” he sobbed.

“You stop that!” Pontius snapped. “Just…stop, all right? We’ll get things sorted out, you’ll be fine. I’ll vouch for you and see if we can keep you on the force.”

“That’s not going to happen! And what about Tomas? He probably doesn’t want to see my face again either! Antoine told him he meant nothing to me, that I hated him and I’ve been with other boys, and it’s not true. I love him, I love him so much!”

“They’re looking for Tomas now. If we can bring him in for evidence and you testify what they did to him, Antoine’s going to be taking your place in solitary for excessive force. You have my word on that.”

“What if I’m gone from the force? Where will I live? I have nothing!” the boy sniffed. Pontius hesitated. He was no good at emotional confrontation, but the weight had already tugged on his heart enough. He had to do something, no matter how big or small. Isaac was a formidable Dispatcher, and he wasn’t about to lose any more men. Even if the boy couldn’t rejoin the force, he had to be taken care of somehow, and Barreau Orphanage was no place for him.

“With me,” Pontius said. “You’ll live with me for a while, okay bud?”

“Thank you…”

A single tear ran down the veteran’s cheek as the lights flickered.

 

*          *          *

 

“What the HELL have you done?!” Edmond roared, slamming Antoine’s office door. The teen barely flinched at his desk as he finished writing up reports for the day.

“I’ve done what is necessary to ensure the continued order and survival of the Dispatchers police force. We have been corrupted for too long, Edmond. And where corruption is permitted to thrive, it must be found and cut off for the cancer that it is. I should think you of all people would appreciate that. After all, you’re our acting leader. Or aren’t you?”

“How dare you! Isaac is our friend and one of the best bloody Dispatchers we have!”

“He is a homosexual. Such proclivities interfere with our work, especially if they involve the boys of Barreau Orphanage, who I understand possess questionable ties to a certain gang. It’s also come to my attention that you’ve permitted them use of stolen phase units sold on the black market, is that correct? I just need to include that in my report-”

“Fuck you, Antoine! You’re as much in Lucien’s pocket as the rest of us!”

“Not for long,” the boy smiled, placing his papers in the outgoing tray. “We have a real chance at reform, here. Promotions. Retirement packages, such that even Pontius could never dream of. I’m talking estates. Our own homes. Proper places to raise families, which are far from the reach of Cavarice and its political dissidents. Perhaps you’ll understand when you’re older.”

“What I understand is that you’ve betrayed one of my closest friends!” Edmond seethed, slamming his fists down on the desk. “And you, me, and Isaac know for a bloody FACT that Lucien was behind the attack on that wall!”

“When I’m the only one left with that knowledge Edmond, it’s hardly going to matter. You’ll incriminate yourself, of course. The Outlanders will fall. Igor will be hanged in public at the Metropolies Square, you will be in prison along with the Barreau boys, and Pontius will be dead. So will Lucien when the public becomes aware of who his mother is, and their misguided attempt to orchestrate a coup. After that, what do you think will happen to this city?”

“You’re insane…”

“Am I? Cavarice will burn. What you really have to ask yourself is, where do you want to be when that happens? Because it’s going to, whether or not any of us want it. Ah, here comes the good Commander Pontius now,” the boy nodded at his window as the man strode in and shoved his way past Edmond.

“What the fuck did you do?!” Pontius demanded, seizing the Antoine by his lapels.

“I’ve done what is necessary-”

“Oh, I’ll show you what’s necessary you piece of shit!” he roared, slamming the boy into a row of cabinets. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going in a cell since I have probable cause, and Isaac’s coming out to make a statement. Once we find Tomas, you’re finished!”

“Are you sure about that?”

Pontius tore Antoine’s coat off and unstrapped the phase unit from his wrist, shoving the boy over to Edmond. “Cuff him and get him the hell out of here!”

“With pleasure,” the lieutenant said.

“You’re making a mistake,” Antoine grinned.

“My only mistake was hiring you,” Pontius sneered.

Edmond reached for the handcuffs on his utility belt with his left hand, but by the time he realized they were missing, it was already too late. Antoine tore away from him and unstrapped his phase unit, firing two direct shots into the district commander’s chest. Pontius fell over the desk and slumped to the floor. The rogue teen delivered a sharp uppercut beneath Edmond’s chin that sent him reeling backwards before fleeing out into the main hall.

“STOP!” the lieutenant screamed, chasing after him. Time slowed down as he caught sight of Dimitri leading Isaac up the opposite way toward them to make his statement. Edmond immediately knew Antoine’s next target, yet the panic within left him paralyzed with fear. All he could do was watch in sheer terror at what happened next. The rogue teen had unsheathed a knife from his sleeve. He lunged forward and plunged the sharp blade deep into Isaac’s stomach. Once. Twice. Thrice, then a quick slash across the neck. Isaac’s face went white with shock. He looked to Edmond and dropped to his knees, clutching his throat. Fountains of blood spewed forth from the horrified boy as he gasped for air that would not come, sending crimson droplets spraying out between his tender fingers.

“NOOO!” The boy shook and fell to the floor, dead. Edmond’s heart thudded in his chest like a canon ready to explode. By the time he was able to move again, several Dispatchers had already scrambled over through the patchwork of desks to apprehend Antoine, tackling the traitor to the floor. Pontius came rushing out of the office with his phase unit drawn, but Edmond threw him back against the wall. The pulse weapon misfired and shattered the glass window of the office.

“Get off me, Jesus Christ!” Pontius yelled. “Fuck! FUCK!”

“He’s gone!” Edmond cried over the lump in his throat. “He’s dead, Pontius! My friend is dead!”

“I know! I know…” the veteran held the boy close. “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” He then tore away from the boy and charged toward Antoine in unbridled rage, dialing his phase unit to the highest setting for stun. “You piece of SHIT!” he roared as he blasted the teen with several thousand volts of pure electricity. Antoine screamed in pain and vomited while seizing violently against the wall, but Pontius fired on him twice more. Static burns tore into the boy’s flesh, melting the clothes to his skin in several places and charring the skin black. Smoke poured out of cauterized wounds, giving off a terrible stench that wafted throughout the precinct. By the time the throng of Dispatchers pulled Pontius off of him, Antoine lay motionless and unresponsive.

Edmond slumped down against the wall with his face buried in his hands. Cavarice was finished.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 26

Pontius took a swig of gin and paced around the coffee table in his luxurious flat, the spoils of which retirement had offered. A soft jazz tune crackled out of the phonograph near the hearth, where a fire burned slow and bright. Candles were lit atop the ledge, illuminating a painting of the Beaumont, the first vessel on which he’d served as captain. The atmosphere was decidedly perfect, yet more than the young woman sitting on the couch probably deserved. He seldom ordered call girls. When he did, he was usually smashed out of his wits. Today, however, was a cause for celebration. The aging veteran had quit the force of his own accord and managed to reunite with his teenage son. However brief their meeting had been, he was satisfied. The boy was alive. That was enough for now.

“This is nice,” the woman smiled, taking in the grandeur of the moment. “Most of my clients aren’t very romantic. Usually they just throw me on the bed and get down to business. I appreciate guys who take their time, get me all warmed up.” She was a redhead, twenty-five or so. Her blue eyes, milky skin, and sultry lips reminded Pontius of Severo’s mother. Of course, her demeanor was off. Christine was a more driven and domineering figure. Call girls in the Metropolies lacked the appropriate level of bitchiness. Catty charm was more their specialty. The women in Falvarre were better, though at least her appearance was up to par.

“You don’t have to do that,” Pontius smirked, joining her on the couch to fill her glass.

“Do what?”

“Pretend you’re all impressed. I called the higher end agency for a reason. Besides, I’m pretty well-known around here.”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said, removing her black fur coat. “Most men want me to be all sweet and innocent.”

“I’m not like most men. I can spot a fake act when I see it. It’s what I was trained to do.”

“What else were you trained to do?” the girl grinned. She stroked the stubble on his face. That was enough to get him going, but he restrained himself. Intellectual conversation was better foreplay than a wandering hand any day.

“Tactical warfare was my specialty. Devising plans to eliminate threats in the most efficient ways possible. Figuring out vantage points, flushing out the most dangerous enemies. Rioters, gang leaders, political dissenters-”

“Jealous, inferior men?” the woman kissed him as he pulled her into an embrace.

“You got the idea,” Pontius smiled. The girl set down her glass of gin and pulled him down on top of her. So much for the intellectual stimulation.

“Train me, Commander,” she whispered in his ear. Just then, a knock came on the door. Pontius groaned, hoping it was just his senile neighbor Mrs. Delacroix again. The wealthy old woman frequently confused their apartment numbers. This would be the third time this week, and it seemed she was getting worse. She had already mistaken Pontius for her son on several occasions. Then again, her knocks were typically softer.

“Hold on,” the veteran sighed, leaving his woman of the night to answer. The rhythm and volume of the knocks had given way to a desperate pounding by the time he made his way over. “All right, all right, I’m coming!” he shouted, twisting the locks. He made sure to grab his cane from the corner table before opening the door in case his latest visitor had ill intentions. But it was Edmond who stood out in the hallway now, joined by Dimitri, one of their newer additions to the force. The lieutenant looked ready to pull his own hair out. “Oh Jesus, what the hell do you boys want?”

“We’ve got an urgent situation down at the precinct!” Edmond blurted out.

“Not my business hours, not my problem,” Pontius said. He went to close the door, but the young lieutenant pushed back.

“Please!” he cried.

“Edmond…It’s not…my…problem. Besides, didn’t you hear? I quit the force yesterday morning. I’m done playing games with you kids. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more important things to do tonight.”

“Oh yes, about you leaving the force,” the boy said, reaching into the inner pocket of his trench coat to produce several forms of paperwork and a gold-plated badge. “I already spoke to General Rodin about your resignation. Technically, you’re a civilian in possession of the phase unit you chose to retain, which means I could arrest you. Unless of course you sign these forms and reinstate yourself as District Commander.”

“Piss off, I don’t have time for this!”

“Isaac is sitting in a cell!” Edmond seethed. “We’re still missing four phase units from our inventory, Mayor La Cour was crucified by the press last night so I’m bending over backwards trying to find enough security detail to cover his stupid welcome gala, and to top it all off, nobody seems to have apprehended Igor. I am not in the mood to be fucked with, SIR!”

Pontius snatched the forms out of the boy’s hand and yanked him forward by the collar. “You scrawny little shit, if you make me regret this, I swear to Christ I’ll shove your prick through a meat grinder before it ever sees the insides of a woman!”

“Actually, it’s already-”

“I don’t give a shit, let me be perfectly clear! I know I’ve made my share of mistakes and I own up to them. But I’m not doing this for you or your pathetic friend, I’m doing it because I want to watch Rodin burn. And I’ll be damned if I let you sit there with your fist up your ass making any more of a mockery of the force I helped to build from the ground up!” The man let go of him and opened the door. “Get your asses inside, I’m not about to have this discussion in the hall.”

Pontius opened the door for them. A renewed sense of rage and annoyance came over him, the likes which he had not felt since the day he lost his son. Deep down, he knew that he owed the Dispatchers for his constant streak of misconduct and alcohol-related issues, but he wasn’t about to admit it. He had far too much pride. Perhaps that was the problem. The previous morning, he figured the best way to save face and avoid confrontation was to quit the force entirely.

After La Cour’s very public roasting, however, and Constance Renou’s announcement of her campaign for mayor, he was beginning to reconsider. Renou and Rodin were good friends. The more power she acquired, the more would undoubtedly be given to Rodin. Pontius still had a very uneasy feeling about Lucien Riviere concerning the events of the prior two days. If Constance had somehow managed to orchestrate a false flag operation in order to assume power, her disowned son was the perfect boy for the job. His actions could never be traced back to her. Then again, such an assumption was farfetched. He could just as easily have been working on his own to do the same. Either way, Pontius decided his skills were of better service back on the force.

“Ooh, what’s this?” the call girl giggled, eyeing Edmond and Dimitri with excitement. “We havin’ an orgy?”

“Official business, sweetheart,” Pontius sighed. “Sorry, but you gotta get lost.”

“But you got me all warmed up!”

“Really, she can stay,” Edmond defended. “We won’t be long.”

“Not a chance!” Pontius snapped. He turned off the phonograph and dug through his wallet to pay the woman extra. “Here honey, buy yourself some nice Louis Vuitton shit.”

“Fine. Thank you.” The woman huffed and put her coat back on. As she passed by the boys to see herself out, Dimitri powered on his phase unit and zapped her in the rear. She shrieked and dropped her purse. “Oh my god!” she laughed. “You boys are bad.”

“Later!” Pontius waved sarcastically. She rolled her eyes and backed out the door. The veteran smacked Dimitri upside the head.

“Ow! What, she was cute!”

“You’re a moron,” Pontius said, reaching for his glass of gin. “So Ed, what’s Isaac doing in a cell? Oh wait, let me guess. He’s a fag and the wrong person found out.”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew, I’m not stupid. Not that I care what you do in your personal lives, as long as you boys do your job. Was never one of my rules. That’s Rodin’s thing,” he explained, taking a big gulp.

“It was Antoine. They found him in his flat in bed with Tomas, one of the Barreau boys.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“He took a squad of Dispatchers, but Isaac said there was another who seemed to be leading them. Tall, older gentleman with dark hair and scars on his face, spoke with an Italian accent. They branded Tomas as an Outlander and cut him loose.”

“What?!” Pontius choked on his drink.

“Antoine said something about cleaning out corruption, that-”

“No, the Italian guy,” the veteran shuddered. “Did he mention his name?”

“Just said he was the devil.”

“Fuck!” Pontius sat down, burying his face in his hands. “This is my fault. I knew Antoine was a loose cannon, I should have fired his ass a long time ago. I took him under my wing because we both had similar sentiments on the Dalishkova. He wanted his sister back, I wanted my son. But he’s always been obsessed with this idea of revenge. I tried to talk him out of it with no luck. Did my best to distance myself from him after that, made sure he wasn’t stationed at the wall. Ha. He’s got some balls to talk about corruption if he’s working with who I think he is. Playing right into the hands of the enemy and doesn’t even know it…”

“Sir?”

“Where’s Antoine now?”

“Down at the precinct, as far as I know.”

“Let’s go.”

Pontius signed the forms to reinstate himself as District Commander and gathered up his equipment. So much for a peaceful retirement. Not that anything about it had thus far been peaceful. Willful ignorance was no longer the bliss he’d hoped. There always seemed to be anomalies to chase, both literal and figurative. The ghosts of the past were every bit as daunting to eradicate as those which threatened Viktorium’s continued existence, weaving in and out of the veteran’s psyche. If he didn’t remain sharp from now on, they would always gain the upper hand. His drinking had placed the entire force in jeopardy enough times. And with his son out there doing god-knows-what, it was best to stay vigilant. No more alcohol tonight.

The precinct was only a few blocks drive from Pontius’s flat. As Edmond skirted the car in reverse and sped down the alley in good time, the old man felt his stomach churn. The wind whipping through his hair dredged up old memories of the Workers’ Rebellion just before DuPont was ousted. Chasing down anomalies while flushing out rioters in the underground tunnels had not been easy, nor had his job of exiling the Outlanders gang. All of it had been orchestrated by Marco Corcini, Viktorium’s Minister of Defense. Once it was discovered he had ties to a rogue group known as the Cult of Archaides, however, he was remanded to the Dalishkova and banished to the Earth frequency. If it was true that he’d somehow returned, Cavarice was doomed.

Thoughts crowded the mind of the aging veteran as he began to doze off. Thoughts of his son, thoughts of his actions in the past. There was more to regret than the loss of Severo. Rounding up rioters was bad enough, but what they’d done to the Outlanders by order of Corcini was something he would never forgive himself for. Every time he closed his eyes at night, he could hear their screams. The heat of the iron, the looks on their faces as they were branded one by one, the stench of burnt human flesh. At least two of the youngest died from shock. And yet something about Igor…the boy did not flinch. In fact, he had smiled. That evil grin haunted Pontius, too. I’ll get you, chicken.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 24

What is your name? The boy awoke unto darkness with a burning question in mind as the black tide rose and fell around him, enveloping his frail body. Every moment the cold water rushed up through his shirt to caress his chest, he shivered. But it was not the temperature that bothered him. It was the voice which spoke the question. An angry voice, one carried on the winds throughout this cold, infernal place. It cut to the deepest core of his being and choked the air clean from his lungs with every wax and every wane. So cold. So dark. Molten ash dug into his soft, tender cheek. He hesitated to open his eyes for fear of what he might behold. The scents of the shore on which he rested were that of sulfur and coal mixed with a distant fire. There was no fresh aroma of sea salt, as he would have expected.

“Oil,” he gagged, propping himself up onto his elbows. Cold, black oil. He crawled up a bit further and vomited out what had accumulated in his throat from the rushing tides and opened his eyes. All was quiet and dark, save for distant thunder and the occasional flash of lightning just over the horizon. A dull, gray fog surrounded the beach. What is your name? He rolled over onto his back, allowing the frigid water to lap eagerly between his toes as he took the shallowest of breaths. The night sky above was overcast in a layer of thick clouds, though it was impossible to tell whether it was a result of the storm or a raging fire from afar. Had he been lost at sea and thrown overboard? Strange.

Something compelled him to crawl farther up the beach to seek shelter. No matter where he had come from, survival was certainly paramount. The boy pushed upward with all of his might, weak as he was, and stumbled to his feet. The trousers he wore fell loose off his tiny frame at first, but he pulled them back over his rear and continued across the surf. Lightning seemed the only source of illumination. He watched the strikes a few moments before resolving it best to travel in their direction. If he’d had a reliable source of fire, he’d have soaked a piece of fabric in the oil to form a torch, but as there were no sticks lying about, it was impractical. That aside, he found it curious that the bolts appeared to be concentrated on a single epicenter past the rock-laden hill overlooking the beach. He had to find out what it was.

Pain racked the boy’s legs with every step. The cool squish of wet ash beneath his feet provided the barest of comfort, even as he shivered. His soaked clothing clung cold to him like something of a second skin, equally as much a prison as a source of protection from the elements. Falling to all fours again once he’d reached the hill, he ascended upward, all the while plagued by a burgeoning sense of fear. The question struck his mind over and over again with every flash of white that tore across the heavens. What is your name?

He rose up again when the ground grew level enough to traverse by foot alone. The air now seemed to have grown warmer in tone, a marked contrast from the calm breeze sweeping over the shores below. The child removed his wet jacket and undershirt to drape them over a nearby rock. Hopefully they would be dry by the time he returned—if he returned. At the very least, it served as a marker to retrace his steps, should he need to.

The sharp strikes of light increased in frequency as he drew nearer to the top. Frayed strings pulsed downward, followed by a drizzle of rain. They almost took on a personality of their own, speaking a language the boy might understand if only he knew the answer to that one elusive question. What is your name? Closer and closer he drew, until at long last he reached the summit of the hill. Warmth streamed down his face in the form of tears…or perhaps sweat. He could not be sure, and yet the first taste of salt was a welcome transition from the oil and ash clouding his lungs. But what he saw next frightened him.

In the valley below stood the bleak remnants of a forest, charred black as night. And there in the epicenter where the lightning continued to strike was a magnificent tower constructed of wrought iron in a latticework pattern. But it was not just any tower. This structure was quite familiar, and unlike most, it had a name that was easily recalled by all who recognized it—the Eiffel Tower. I said…what is your name?!

A final bright flash rocketed down through the spire, generating a loud audible crack that shook the ground beneath the heaving boy.

He blacked out.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought I might find you here.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 19

“I’m telling you, he knows too much!” Max raged. “About the tunnel, about the Outlanders, Quentin, everything. Every word that came out of the bastard’s mouth was like he was accusing us of something!”

The young elder had been pacing back and forth in the office for the last twenty minutes, trying to convince Lucien and Bernard that the journalist he’d shared drinks with the previous night was a major threat to them all. Lucien kept smirking in that stupid way of his while Bernard crossed his arms and huffed. But no matter how much Max tried to make his point, neither of them seemed to believe him.

“Would you relax?” Lucien chuckled. “Benoit Laurent is nothing more than a bloody hack, and everyone hates him. The Dispatchers even have a price on his head. You really think he’d go running to tell them anything we’ve done?”

“If it clears his name, I wouldn’t put it past him!”

“Not that I agree with Lucien,” Bernard sighed, “but he’s right. They would have done something by now. Edmond knew about the stolen phase unit Tomas had after his visit yesterday. He barely said a word about it.”

“That was before the attack on the wall. If they’re running inventory of these parts, sooner or later they’re going to question where we got them and come after us. And for some reason, Igor didn’t take the ones we stole, which throws a pretty heavy wrench in things!”

“Seriously?” Lucien’s eyes widened. Max rushed out the open door, grabbing the old potato sack full of stolen wares from the boys’ hall and returned promptly. He dumped the three phase units onto the counter and flung the bag on the floor.

“Any further questions?”

“What specifically did Benoit say to you?”

Max sighed. “The official story on record is that we were kidnapped and held hostage by the Outlanders. He deduced that the only way any of us could have been taken was if we were in some way using the subway tunnel in the old Steamworks building.”

“Or we could just be using the building itself,” Bernard added.

“Either way, we’re not supposed to be there.”

“Doesn’t matter. The blame falls on the Dispatchers for not having sealed the tunnel,” Lucien said. “Besides, one of our poor, helpless children could have escaped and gotten hurt on the tracks. Prime material for a lawsuit.”

“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I? What answers did you give him, Maxwell!” the lanky boy shoved him.

“Nothing he didn’t already know. How many phase units did you give to Igor?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How many phase units, Lucien!” Max seethed. “You must have given them something, otherwise how else did they manage to blow a giant fucking hole in the city wall?!”

“All right, can we not do this now?” Bernard sighed, stepping between them. “We all agreed Barreau is neutral territory. This office is for diplomatic resolutions, not wrestling matches.”

Max narrowed his eyes. “And what about the ten phase units that went missing from the precinct? Antoine thought we had one in our possession last night,” he said, pushing past Bernard. “Sure, it could have been anyone. But why accuse us? He named you specifically.”

“Hello!” Bernard grinned, gesturing wildly to the three phase units left on the counter. “Seems you’ve forgotten our more pressing matter.”

The two boys glared at him a second, incredulous that there could be anything more important than their current spat. Max was just about to concede until a furious banging sounded on the front door. All three of them jumped out of their skin and looked at one another. Lucien rushed to the window and tore back the curtain to see who was there.

“It’s Edmond,” he smirked. “I’m out, au revoir, have fun!” The insufferable boy dashed out the open office door to make a clean break for the back exit past the staircase before either of the elders could catch him.

“This isn’t over!” Max yelled, charging after the lanky bastard, only to have the door slammed in his face. “Goddamn it! Bernard, lock the back door. Now!” He whirled around and tossed his key ring over to his second-in-command as he passed by him, making way for the boys’ hall. “Hide our shit, the Dispatchers are here!” Every child in the room immediately dropped what they were doing and scrambled to gather up their stolen wares. An assortment of old rugs they kept placed strategically about the floor were thrown back to reveal trapdoors which served as storage spaces. In a matter of seconds, phase units, badges, trench coats, radios, and other Dispatcher gear were being shoved into them amid a cacophony of anxious voices.

“Fuck!” Max rushed back to the office, nearly forgetting about the three phase units he’d dumped onto the counter as the banging on the front door continued. “Please, just one bloody second,” he cried. Tears streamed down his face as he loaded the things back into the potato sack. Stupid. The elder was not one to cry under tense circumstances, but considering that everything seemed to be going to shit lately, such involuntary responses must have got the better of him. He swiped the tears with his sleeve and rushed back to the hall, clamoring to fit the bag into the space before Bernard answered the door. The rest of the boys kicked the rugs back into place and returned to stand at attention in front of their beds. Max heard Edmond’s team charge in before he’d even had the chance to turn around.

“Ah, Ferrier!” the lieutenant chimed. “You just can’t stop showing up on my radar, can you?”

Max scowled. “Believe me, it’s not as if I try.”

“House calls aren’t a pleasant experience for either of us,” Edmond sighed. “I prefer to avoid them when I can. But given recent events, I’m sure you understand the necessity.”

“What I understand is that one of my boys is dead and Lucien is off founding his own orphanage at the corner library up the street! Why don’t you go give him a house call? You’re wasting your time here. We have nothing to hide.”

“Is that so?” the lieutenant narrowed his eyes. “We found Quentin hiding away in the crawl space of your room just the other day-”

“Don’t you dare speak his name!” Max seethed.

“Of course. Forgive me,” Edmond said. “All the same…we were missing ten of our phase units from inventory the other night, for a total of thirteen. Three were confiscated that morning from myself, Captain Georges, and Isaac here by the Outlanders. Some were undoubtedly used to construct the bomb they used to break in, and we managed to retrieve four from the gang members we killed. Judging by the blast radius on the wall, we estimate that five units were detonated at maximum capacity. That leaves-”

“Four. I can do the math.” The elder shuddered. Three of those lay under his very feet, which meant all the missing units were accounted for…except one. Where the hell could it be? Not that it mattered much. Max was certain they didn’t have it, unless Lucien in all of his craftiness had somehow managed to smuggle it onto the property—of course, he wouldn’t have put it past his former friend.

“Look, I don’t mean to place you under suspicion-”

“That’s exactly what you mean,” Max sniffed, wiping his nose. It was still stuffy from the tears.

“You have obviously acquired older models of phase units before,” the lieutenant stepped toward him. “I’ve no idea how you managed it, but I’m sure you’re well aware that the possession of such equipment is illegal for civilians. We have come across a few units being sold in back room black market deals during previous investigations-”

“But-”

“I’ve resolved to look the other way for as long as I can. The Barreau District is a dangerous place, and out of principle, I must allow you some form of protection. I’ll spare you a search for now, but those units must be tracked. Given my generosity…I trust you’ll keep the settings low and report to me all serial numbers of any units that may pass into your hands. Can you do that?”

“Yes…of course,” Max swallowed. “We have two older models currently in our possession,” he said, nervously making his way over to a shelving unit aside one of the stone support columns. He rummaged across an assortment of old radio parts and picked it out from behind a pile of books. “This is the one we were caught with last night. Florian gave it to me and then ran off. I’m guessing he’s with Lucien now, but who knows.” He watched Edmond pull out a pad and paper. “This is number…006374.”

“And the other?”

“Tomas has that one, he’s always tinkering with it,” the elder sighed. “Tomas…Tomas?” Max gazed over the faces of the boys under his watch, who all seemed to be making bewildered glances at one another. He frantically checked the ranks, but the child was not amongst them. “Shit! Any of you know where…oh, right. He left with Lucien the other night.” Several of the boys sunk their heads. How could he have forgotten?

“At this hour, I believe I might have some idea where he is,” Bernard cringed through clenched teeth.

“Well let’s hear it!” Max demanded.

“Private affairs of a…certain nature.”

“Pardon?”

“That thing he did every morning when he crawled-”

“Oh! Right…let’s not embarrass anyone.” Max felt a cold sweat come over him as he looked again to the boys, some of whom hung their heads a bit lower than usual to hide the flush of red on their cheeks. For one consecutive week during the summer, he recalled coming downstairs to wake everyone up and noticed a rhythmic movement beneath the sheets of a different boy’s bed each morning, after which Tomas would emerge and slink back to his own mattress. He had been performing oral sex on several of them for some time. In an orphanage of hormonal kids, Max figured it was bound to happen now and again. Out of respect for their privacy, he would whistle quietly and wait a few moments until they’d finished their business before ringing the bell. But where most were content to talk about girls and exchange dirty magazines, Tomas seemed strictly more interested in males.

“If you have the serial number, that’s all I need,” Edmond assured him.

“Anyone remember that stupid number?” the elder asked.

“I do,” the shy, red-headed boy named Louis said. “It’s 006981.”

“Thank you,” Edmond nodded.

“Wonder how he remembers those two middle numbers,” one of the older boys cracked. Max slapped him. “Ow!”

“Shut up.”

“Well then,” Edmond coughed, “seeing as this was just a routine visit, and you’ve provided the information I needed, I see no reason to bother you any further. We will of course be increasing security detail in this district over the coming days up until the gala celebrations. If I deem it necessary to conduct a more thorough search, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you may want to keep an eye on your own ‘inventory’,” he nodded toward the boys. “I wouldn’t want you to lose another.”

Max frowned. “You’re so charming.”

“So I’ve been told. Cheerio,” the lieutenant said. He moved for the doorway, but stopped short. “Oh, one last matter I think should be brought to your attention. Your Outlander boy who was killed-”

“Quentin,” Max corrected him.

“Yes…a blind elderly gentleman came by the precinct earlier claiming to be his grandfather. We released the body to him.”

“What?!”

“You said you didn’t want it, so I saw no harm in doing so, and since family takes priority in such matters, I thought you deserved to know.”

“He doesn’t have any family, why do you think he was staying at Barreau? There were no surviving relatives listed on his citizenship papers! Or didn’t you bother to do your job?”

“I would not normally disclose this information, but standard Dispatcher procedure is incineration of any deceased bodies that come into our custody, whether they are released to proper relatives or not. His name is Fernand Vaugrenard if you’d care to look him up, perhaps pay a visit.”

“Thank you, I will,” Max breathed.

“Good. Well I’ve got to be going, so I’ll get out of your hair. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

With that, Bernard led the young lieutenant out the front door and promptly locked it behind him. As Max watched the rest of the boys disband to resume their daily leisure activities, he couldn’t help but feel overcome with a strong sense of loneliness. There was a certain finality to the knowledge that Quentin was now truly gone. So long as his body remained, he’d thought, perhaps there might be some way in Viktorium to…no. That’s silly. People die here, just as they do in the real world. That night was proof.

And yet if there were any truth to Benoit Laurent’s articles, which—considering the man’s remarkable knowledge, there had to be—maybe, just maybe, it was possible that some part of Quentin was still alive somewhere. Max had also observed that he was among one of the few in Viktorium who aged. Bernard didn’t seem to, and neither did most of the orphan boys. But all of the Dispatchers aged normally. In fact, he couldn’t recall a single Dispatcher on the force who appeared immortal. I still can’t remember my own death…if Quentin were to come back, would he remember his?

Max shivered and did his best to shake such questions from his mind. Unable to do so, he paced back to his office and dug out the bottle of whiskey he kept stashed in the bottom drawer of his desk for such occasions. Bernard came through the door a second later and grabbed two shot glasses from the corner shelf.

“Read my mind,” the African boy smiled. “That was pretty close.”

“Yeah,” Max smirked.

“So they released Quentin’s body. That was pretty damn quick.”

“And unauthorized, as far as I can tell.” He tore open the center drawer of the desk and slapped the dead boy’s citizenship documents down to look over them again. “Yeah…not a single living relative listed. No mention of a Fernand Vaugrenard anywhere.”

“Must be a new arrival,” Bernard winced as he downed his shot. “Damn.”

“I’ll look into it later. No time to head to Immigration Affairs now. We’ve got preparations to make for La Cour’s welcome gala. It’s being moved to Verdevale, which means we’ll need all hands on deck. That also means smoothing things over with Lucien, yet again,” Max rolled his eyes and downed another shot. “All right, I’m not about to lose any more boys. Where the bloody hell is Tomas?!”

 

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