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 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 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 17

Edmond Fache slumped onto his desk at the precinct with his chin resting on the knuckles of one hand while he twirled Severo’s prayer amulet in the other. He found himself toying with it ever more frequently since that morning, when they’d all been called down to General Rodin’s office for a firm reprimand. He had been almost certain he wouldn’t have the motivation to process every individual report from the Dispatchers stationed at the wall the previous night, and yet somehow, he’d managed to blaze through fifteen of them before the lunch hour. It felt strange to ponder, but it seemed that shiny hunk of metal in his palm was increasing his ability to concentrate on heavier tasks he might have otherwise put off. Whatever works, he thought, setting it aside.

His mind drifted back to the events of the previous night, and to the long lost friend who had showed up seemingly out of nowhere. The last time he recalled seeing Severo was when they were both about eight years old. Pontius, having fought the Dalishkova for years, made the mistake of vacationing in Helias. Severo couldn’t stop talking about when he discovered Edmond’s parents had planned a trip there in the early spring. He’d begged his father to go. Even Edmond himself was excited to show his best friend around and help him reconnect with his heritage as much as he could. Severo was born in Helias after all, and the longing in his heart was stronger than anything else.

On the last night of their stay at the Hotel Apollonius, they’d been leaning over the balcony of their second story room to listen to the waves on the beach and watch the stars twinkle overhead. The plesiosaurs were still eating the last of their fill for the evening, raising their heads now and again to let out the gentlest of roars. A calm breeze drifted in from the Sea of Helene, bringing with it the aroma of salt combined with fresh fish from the merchant markets up the street. The atmosphere was so serene, yet bittersweet. Severo’s excitement still had not waned. But something in particular about their conversation from that night stood out to Edmond, and he would never forget it.

“I really want to visit the temple! I hope my mom will be there. You think she will?”

“I don’t know. The temple is off limits to visitors.”

“But I was born in Helias. I’m sure I could get you in.”

“I don’t think so. And I’m starting Dispatcher training in a couple years, so this is the last time we’ll be able to come here.”

“Oh…promise we’ll always be friends, Ed?”

“Of course we will, stupid. Why do you ask? You sound sad.”

“I’m just homesick.”

“It’ll be all right, I promise. Tomorrow we’ll run off on our own and meet our parents back at the boat, and we’ll have the best day ever! We’ll remember it and talk about it a lot until the day you can come back.”

“Father would never let me return to Helias…”

Edmond had placed an arm around his friend to console him. Perhaps he had changed the subject, he couldn’t remember. But it didn’t matter what was said after that. The next morning, the two of them had run back to the docks and stood in line to board the Cassius. They even held hands so they wouldn’t be separated. Edmond was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that he recalled Severo boarding the vessel. Yes. They’d spoken on the return trip. Sometime that evening, when the last green rays of Viktorium’s sun were fading from the sky, the boy said something about exploring the lower decks and ran off. By the time the ship docked on the south port of Cavarice, he had vanished.

Pontius searched the vessel from top to bottom, along with two teams of Dispatchers. They shone spotlights at the water and along each side of the hull. Another team dove into the sea. They threw out crates, overturned tables, tore down the sails, chopped apart barrels of rum, dumped all the remaining cargo. No single inch of the ship was left unexplored that night, and yet…nothing. And the more they searched and called his name, the more enraged Pontius became. He shouted at the crew, held the captain down by his neck and choked him on the wheel until the Dispatchers pulled him away. The next morning, he had the entire vessel scrapped. Still nothing.

Some weeks later, reports came in from Helias about the body of an eight year-old boy who had washed up on the shores near the statue of the Salt God. He matched Severo’s description to a tee—raven black hair, pale skin, wearing the exact same clothes. The pictures were published in the Viktorium Free Press a week later. Sure enough, it was Severo. But how could that be? He had boarded the Cassius, and there were enough witnesses to corroborate the fact. Even if Edmond’s memory indeed failed him on the events of that day, the boy’s name was logged in the passenger manifest for the return trip. And he certainly could not have floated all the way back to Helias, given that they were closer in range that evening to Cavarice when he’d claimed he was going to explore the lower decks. None of it made sense. Then again, few things did when it came to the Dalishkova.

“‘Father would never let me return’,” Edmond whispered. “I’m sorry, Sev.” He remembered, too, how his own father had scolded him for losing his friend. His mother, naturally, favored a more mild approach. Everyone had seemed keen on pointing fingers that night, even the passengers who hadn’t known the boy. But Edmond did blame himself, and had for a long time. Yet suddenly, here his childhood friend was, back from the dead? Impossible! The sound of footsteps nearing his office prompted the second lieutenant to shove the prayer amulet back in his desk drawer.

“Sir?” Isaac appeared to address him timidly with a knock on the door frame.

“What is it?” Edmond sighed.

“A rather curious old man is asking about the bodies.”

“What bodies?”

“Um…attack on the wall…last night, boom boom? Captain Georges, Outlanders blew through the west gate-”

“Yes, yes, I’m awake, thank you much,” Edmond cut him off, yawning again. “Sorry, I’ve been swamped by all the paperwork General Rodin wants on his desk tomorrow.”

“Looks like you’ve got a lot done for the evil bastard.” Isaac raised his eyebrows at the giant stack in the outgoing tray. “I thought you hated processing reports.”

“I do, but…something about that amulet Severo gave me last night…I’ve never felt more motivated in all my life. Can’t explain it.”

“Yeah, well just don’t let Antoine see it. You know how he feels about the rivalry and all.”

“Yes,” Edmond said, rising from his chair to circle around the desk. “His sister was taken by the Dalishkova too.”

“Taken? I thought she-”

“Drowned? I just saw my best childhood friend last night for the first time in seven years, Isaac. I looked him square in the eye, I felt him in my arms. Trust me. She’s alive. I don’t know how, I don’t know where, but I’m sure she is. Something fishy is going on in Helias. Not that it matters, since all public transport to the island was cut off after DuPont’s exile. We have more urgent matters to attend to. You were saying?”

“Strange old blind gentleman showed up at the precinct earlier. Says he’s the Barreau kid’s grandfather. Wants to reclaim the body or something.”

“Quentin?” Edmond balked. “He was an orphan, which means no documentation of surviving relatives was found anywhere in Cavarice. This better not be one of Lucien’s tricks!”

“Doubt it,” Isaac shrugged. “I mean, the man could just as well be a new arrival. Besides, it’s not like Max or Lucien wanted the body anyway. And do you really want more paperwork to add to that ridiculous stack of reports-”

“Fine!” the second lieutenant huffed. “He can have the bloody corpse for all I care. I just hope he brought his own wheelbarrow. That thing is pretty messy.”

“Right…” Isaac moved for the door, but Edmond stopped him.

“Wait! I want to meet him first. Seems odd. If this man is really a new arrival, what the hell does he know about burial rites in Viktorium? They’re all told that people don’t die here. This is ‘the grand and perfect afterlife’. We don’t even have so much as a morgue or cemetery.”

“Oh please, you know how fast news travels, what with the Free Press doing all their damn exposés. I’m not sure how La Cour hopes to do any damage control after last night. Pretty soon, there may not be much of Cavarice left to defend.”

“Good, I can’t wait to retire and go to Heaven.”

“And I can’t wait for my shift to be over,” Isaac smirked. “Got my own bit of Heaven to catch.”

“Gross,” Edmond rolled his eyes at the boy. He often forgot that Isaac was a homosexual. Not that it mattered one bit to him, though he did fear for the safety of his colleague; such behavior was overlooked among the lower classes of society, but for the Dispatchers, it was an offense punishable by expulsion from the force and significant jail time.

As the two made their way down a corridor that led to the main lobby, the young lieutenant considered the implications of releasing any corpses. They had rarely done so before, and only in certain special cases. Being that no morgue or cemetery existed in the capital city—they had to maintain an aura of perfection, after all—a small freezer had been built at each precinct site for storage. They were required to keep the bodies for a period of one week. Proper protocol dictated that any claimants were to sign nondisclosure agreements, after which a squad of Dispatchers would escort them to the desert outside city walls and allow them to hold a brief burial ceremony at what was essentially a small pit. Once the grieving parties said their goodbyes, the squad would power up their phase units and incinerate the remains, and that was that.

But claimants in general made Edmond nervous. Newcomers tended to be testy. Not that they could legally cause damage, being that the first release form they signed was a similar NDA stating that they could not speak of the second form’s contents outside precinct walls. No one would believe them, in any case. No public transport came in or out of the west gate anymore, and no registered civilians could cross into the desert without special clearance or Dispatcher escort. Still, the events of the previous night had shaken the entire force to their core, and it seemed odd that on the very next day, a claimant had appeared to take the body of the one Cavarice civilian killed in the attack. Not only that, but the one who, Edmond knew, had ties to both the Barreau boys and the Outlanders. He did not like it at all. In fact, he prayed it was one of Lucien’s tricks. At least then, he could shut it down quickly. As they entered the lobby, however, it seemed anything but.

A blind elderly man with a kind face was waiting patiently on a bench to the side, twisting his cane. Edmond approached him with skepticism while Isaac took a seat next to him and began to verbally explain the forms. He had no choice, of course. They did not have Braille copies at the precinct. Convenient, the lieutenant thought. Everything about this stinks. And all the while, the man nodded, even as he turned his head in Edmond’s direction and smiled.

“May I ask what you want with the body, Mister…?”

“Ah, Vaugrenard!” the man exclaimed, extending a hand. “Fernand Vaugrenard, pleased to meet you.”

“I am Second Lieutenant Edmond Fache,” the boy breathed, reluctantly shaking his hand.

“Edmond, really?” Isaac protested.

“Oh no, that’s quite all right my dear boy,” Fernand chuckled. “You have protocols, I understand. I realize this must seem rather odd, doesn’t it. Well, fact of the matter is, I just arrived here in Cavarice about two days ago. The young woman down at Immigration Affairs said my name sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t find any documentation. I was being escorted back to my assigned flat last night on the metro train when I overheard the news about the west gate. This morning, my nurse was reading me the obituaries in the Viktorium Free Press, and Quentin came up. I had hoped to reunite with him here, but fate, it appears, is not so kind. He was my grandson.”

“I’m so very sorry,” Edmond sighed, taking a seat next to him. “And I can assure you, those responsible for the attack on the wall will be met with swift justice.”

“It’s good to know you boys are doing your job, despite the circumstances. I cannot imagine it’s easy.”

“I take it you weren’t shocked when you discovered people die, even in the afterlife?”

“Edmond!” Isaac scolded again, but the boy put a finger to his lips and shook his head.

“I may not look it now, but I’ve seen quite a lot in my lifetime,” the man smiled. “Nothing people do to one another shocks me anymore. Besides, before my murder in Paris, I was a complete cripple, wheelchair bound for life. And here I am now, fit as a fiddle for the most part. Who am I to argue with what choices the Good Lord makes?”

“Right,” Edmond sighed. For god’s sake, stop getting so worked up over a bloody corpse. “You understand what you’ll be agreeing to once you sign the release forms? Following a private ceremony, all bodies must be cremated, personally, by us. No questions, no complaints. Or else no body. Also, our conversation regarding this does not leave the precinct.”

“Understood,” the man nodded.

“Sign away,” the boy patted his shoulder and stood.

“I do have but one small request,” Fernand said. “The body…might I be permitted a few moments alone with him? He was my only grandchild. I’d like to properly say goodbye.”

“Of course.”

Once the man signed the release forms, the boys escorted the old man down to the cellar and unlocked the walk-in freezer. Edmond removed his beige trench coat and draped it over the man’s shoulders to keep him warm while inside. A blast of cold air greeted them as Isaac pulled open the door. The bodies of the slain Outlanders—or at least the parts that were left of them—had been stacked crudely in the corners in black trash bags. Those of the Dispatchers, several of which had already been claimed, were placed in alcove beds built into the sides of the walls. Quentin’s nude body lay on a table in the center, his head draped in a black cloth. Isaac shivered and leaned against the door frame. Neither he nor Edmond took their eyes off the old man for a second.

“What do you think he’s doing?”

“I don’t know.” The second lieutenant watched with curiosity as Fernand removed a small vial from his coat pocket and proceeded to anoint the body of his grandson in some kind of white oil, even removing the face cloth which covered the ghastly wound where the child’s skull had been torn open by phase unit fire.

“I think I’m going to be sick!” Isaac wretched, ducking around the corner to vomit. Edmond rolled his eyes. How any of the Dispatchers had developed such weak stomachs, he would never know. Then again, he’d seen plenty of death in his lifetime.

“All finished?” he called. “I don’t mean to rush, but we’ve got quite a busy schedule ahead of us today.”

“No worries,” the man cleared his throat and stuffed the empty vial away in his pocket.

“Isaac, you ready?”

“Yes, just a moment,” the boy gagged.

“Forget it, I’ll take care of it.”

Edmond plodded into the freezer and gently removed his trench coat from Fernand’s shoulders, wrapping it around Quentin’s body. He made sure to tie the face cloth over the head before lifting the dead child off the table to hoist him over his shoulder and took the old man’s hand to guide him out. Once the door was locked, Isaac appeared from around the corner to help him carry the boy up the steps. Another squad of Dispatchers aided them the rest of the way.

Every protocol was then followed, right up to the incineration. Overall, there turned out to be nothing strange about it. The old man thanked them for their help back at the precinct and went on his merry way. But Edmond still couldn’t help the sinking feeling in his gut that something was terribly wrong.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 16

It had rained late the previous night, leaving a humid mist in the air that reached from the western districts to as far up as the Metropolies. In some ways, Severo preferred the raging sandstorms of the desert villa over the fog. There was a sense of calm in isolation, and the sand banks, while not easily navigable, did not harbor any potential enemies. Now that the Outlanders had made their triumphant return to the city, there were far fewer places to hide. One’s business could be exposed at any moment for all to see. To that end, discretion in Cavarice was a bit of a lost art. At least the Barreau District was not heavily patrolled by Dispatchers.

To that end, the young knight had taken the liberty of setting up a meeting with Bishop Archibald of the local Catholic Diocese on his outing the previous day. The Church had once played a rather prominent role in the rehoming of all orphans who arrived in Cavarice prior to 1915, so if any records of Igor existed from that time, perhaps it would help shed some light on his current predicament. Of course, there was also the matter of returning to Helias to attend to, though that would have to wait. The sooner he uncovered the truth about the troubled leader of the Outlanders, the sooner he could return home with dignity and resume his training in the Seven Trials.

The courtyard of St. Benedict’s Orthodox Sanctuary stood overgrown with weeds and an array of thorny rose bushes that protruded over the iron fence of the walkway like prostrate skeletons. The sidewalk was cracked in various places, the stone walls of the church quickly surrendering to reclamation by a layer of thick vines. With all the miracles in Christendom, perhaps the biggest was that this particular building had managed to remain open all these years. Severo ascended the front steps to a large set of oak double doors and rang the brass bell on the side as instructed. Within seconds, the heavy wooden door unlatched and swung inward. Bishop Archibald’s smiling face greeted him.

“Ah, Severo, good to see you,” the aging man said.

“Thank you.”

“Please, do come inside.”

The knight hesitated and gazed back at the path behind him. He sensed a strange sense of power in this place, unkempt as it was, which railed against his Dalishkova faith. It was odd he had not noticed it before in his travels. Without his prayer amulet—which served as a tool both to protect him, as well as influence belief in others—these energies appeared much more detectable now. So, it seems we’ve been blinded…interesting…

“Are you ready?” the bishop said.

“Yes. Forgive me.”

“As they say, it is not the path which lies behind, but that which leads forward that brings one out of the dark.”

“Of course.” Severo smiled and stepped through the door into a massive foyer that afforded a view of the sanctuary. On the archway above was carved an inscription in Latin: ‘Victoriam In Christo, Solatium In Matrem’—Victory In Christ, Solace In The Mother. The strain of Catholicism that continued in Viktorium was an odd departure from that which was practiced on the Earth plane, mainly because most of its followers viewed this dimension as a sort of Purgatory from which to escape. They often referred to it by name.

The symbols used were much the same, though most of their crosses were designed as broken crucifixes with obtuse angles and a ray of light emanating from the top, while lacking the quintessential figure of the suffering Christ. The reasoning behind this was supposedly because they wanted to encourage their followers to imagine a world without Christ and thus frighten them away from a darker path, though not all churches agreed with the change, favoring a more traditional approach. In recent days however, the second most common image was that of Mary clutching the bruised and battered body of Jesus, signifying a sort of hope for the downtrodden. But no matter the symbology, it was all the same to Severo. Belief, he’d been taught, was the most important aspect. And today, the young knight believed he would find something.

He followed Archibald up to the front of the dim sanctuary, gazing above at the iron chandeliers constructed in a gothic revivalist fashion. Some of them creaked to and fro from their chains, creating an eerie atmosphere as their candles cast shadows on the painted images of saints portrayed on the ceiling above. As they neared the altar, a few uneven portions of carpet drew his attention downward. Between the worn holes in the ornate fabric, he could make out the face of an occasional demon staring up at him. It seemed the floor had been painted at one point to resemble the fires of Hell. Perhaps enough followers had disagreed with it for the church leaders to cover it up.

“Creepy,” Severo muttered.

“I’m sorry? Oh…of course.” The bishop looked back and cringed in acknowledgment, but kept walking. “That floor has always been a subject of contention, I’m afraid. It was meant to better illustrate where this sanctuary stands…to serve as a reminder that this is Purgatory. Above us is Heaven, below us, the pits of Hell. Needless to say, most of our congregation did not take it well, so we covered it until such time it can be repainted. Sadly, our donations in recent days have been rather scant.”

“I would imagine so,” the knight replied. “The Barreau District has fallen on hard times.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Over two hundred people once populated our pews here. Now, fewer than fifty remain, and of those, only about twenty are regular attendees. Of course, closing our doors is never an option. Too many souls left to save.”

“Of course.”

Archibald led him over to a corner office and unlocked the door with a skeleton key. The scent of rich mahogany wafted out from the room as he swung it open and turned on the lights. It was a marked improvement from the dim atmosphere of the sanctuary, brighter and far more inviting. Hanging plants had been arranged near the windows, lending the room a touch of green that was amplified by the stained glass windows.

“I like to keep my office fresh. The rest of this place reminds me of a haunted house!” the old man chuckled. “But the designs were not my choice, you understand. I simply go where I’m called.”

“As do we all.”

“Yes, so,” the man took a seat behind his desk. “What is it that I can do for you today?”

“I’m looking for any information you might have on young boys who were rehomed in Cavarice prior to 1915. It’s my understanding that the Catholic Diocese up to that point worked closely with orphanages to foster transfers and adoptions of children who had arrived here without their parents.”

“Ah, yes,” the man nodded. He rose from his chair and stepped over to a file cabinet in the corner, kneeling down at the bottom drawer. “We should still have some information here in our archives, though much of it was sent to the old courthouse for processing back before it was closed. Do you have a name in particular that you’re searching for?”

“Igor,” Severo breathed. A twinge of anxiety always seemed to hit him every time he had to say that name. Even as a Dalishkova Knight, he could not deny that the boy struck a certain amount of fear in him. And though the scrappy child was blocks away holed up at the safe house, he still felt as though he were being watched by a wolf in the shadows. A wolf he could conquer, and yet a wolf all the same, one that both stalked and eluded him at once.

“And the surname?” the bishop inquired. “We’ve got several boys on file.”

“He doesn’t have a surname that I know of, but he’d be about twelve or thirteen years old.”

“That narrows it down to two. One went to Barreau Orphanage, the other was sent to Rothreau in the northern districts because Barreau was too full at the time. Although it does seem rather strange,” Archibald stood up. He put on his glasses to gaze from one page in the folder to the next, shaking his head. “Their arrival dates were identical, as are their filed dates of birth-”

“Let me see,” Severo said, snatching the folder out of the man’s frail hands and read the second boy’s file aloud. “Born August 23rd, 1902, arrived in Cavarice approximately April 3rd, 1914. No room at Barreau, suggest move to Rothreau by April 14th as several children are being adopted.” He looked back to the first. “Igor has been successfully transferred to Barreau…”

“Perhaps it was misfiled?”

“I don’t think so…this has got to be a cover of some sort. Yes…here it is,” Severo breathed, flipping over the page. “He had to have stayed somewhere else in the interim waiting period before being transferred to Rothreau, and since there was no room at Barreau, they couldn’t have kept him there…oh no!” the boy gasped.

“What is it?”

“The shelter he stayed at…do you mind if I take this?”

“I don’t see why not, it’s not as if many people come looking for old-”

“Thank you!” Severo cut him off and rushed out of the office.

“Wait, where are you going?” Archibald called.

But the young Dalishkova Knight was already halfway through the sanctuary. Why the hell didn’t I think of that before? It was all beginning to make perfect sense now as his earliest childhood memories came to him in fragmented pieces. Ever since he’d rid himself of the prayer amulet during the events of the previous night, the flashbacks were occurring with greater frequency. For years, he had wondered why his father fought so hard to protect him against the Dalishkova, why he hated them so. Severo’s mother was a High Priestess, which he knew had led to some conflict between them. Not like he ever got much of a chance to talk to her.

After his father’s return to Cavarice on that fateful day, he’d been quickly shuffled away into the depths of the temple and given a prayer amulet. For several days, he was provided no food—only water and a book of prayers. By the time the door to the room where he was held prisoner opened, he emerged as a fully-fledged convert and began his training in the Order of Knights. He placed utmost faith in his peers, as well as his ability to protect and serve according to the holy tenants. And yet the further away from the truth of the Order he got, the more he realized it was just manipulation; a smokescreen which deceived everyone in Helias the same as La Cour had managed to do in Cavarice, so that everyone, no matter where they came from, would all be pitted against one another…for what?

Severo rushed for the set of double doors as the bishop trailed behind him. With a single breath, the boy exhaled all the emotion which had bottled up in his chest and concentrated on his obstacle. The doors immediately flung open and smashed against the inside walls of the foyer, sending rippling cracks that extended up to the ceiling. Archibald stopped dead in his tracks and backed away in fear. The knight did not bother to check on him. After all, as the man had said, it was never about the path he would leave behind, but that which led forward that would lead him out of the darkness. It was time to pay a visit to an old Dalishkova property called ‘The Shelter of Motherly Light’.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 15

The underground chambers of the Dalishkova temple in Helias were dark and cold as death. Hewn from limestone and dolomite rock that had formed a cave system centuries ago, the early followers of the Salt God had built their first temple of refuge here. In more recent years, it served as a training ground for the initiation of Knights. And while most initiates were given a map of the area for mock combat exercises, other chambers were either off limits or not listed. The Resurrection Pool was one such chamber. Sealed off since the First Revival movement over two millennia ago, it had recently come back into use by the rogue sect of Dalishkova known as the Cult of Archaides.

Blind Ricard knelt by the pool, swaying his hand to and fro through the white organic matter his trusted helpers had poured from an assortment of ceramic jugs earlier that morning. Still a bit shallow and not quite lukewarm enough for his preference, though it would certainly do. When frigid, the substance created a chemical reaction with limestone, causing a heating effect that took an entire day to dissipate to proper levels for the task to which he was entrusted. Known to authorities as The Sculptor, Ricard had been broken out of his solitary prison on Alabaster Bay and hired by Marco Corcini for his ability to resurrect the dead across frequencies. With the rise of Archaides, it seemed that he, too, was given a second lease on life.

But Ricard was old, eighty years by Earth standards, and he knew his time would come soon enough. The order he descended from was all but wiped out during the purity purge of the Second Revival, and their secrets had gone with them. He was the last of his kind, blinded by intention once it was discovered that he possessed the gift of visualization as a child. It had been fifty years since he’d knelt at this very pool. To feel the healing power of the substance cascading through his arthritic hands again was nothing short of a miracle, and not one he took for granted—he’d been lucky enough to be imprisoned before the law required the hands of all remaining Sculptors to be broken or amputated. Still, he hated being out of practice for so long. This would take some work.

“Has it all come back to you?” a deep voice echoed from the chamber entrance. Marco.

“The voices of the dead do not speak with much clarity, I’m afraid,” Ricard replied. “But I can hear them beginning to whisper from the cracks of time in which they dwell,” he shivered. “Yes…the stream is getting louder as the flesh cools. So many souls, crying out for release.” His heart began to pound with an excitement he’d not felt in decades as the liquid swelled at his touch.

“I imagine this must be quite a treat for you.”

“Indeed. If I were to be granted a dying wish, this would have been it. I never thought I would live to see the rise of so similar a power again on this island. But knowing that I may serve you is quite enough of an honor.”

“And you know the one whom I seek.”

Ricard hesitated. “It will come with some difficulty, but I believe it can be done, as with all things in time. It is no fair irony that those who have been departed for much longer hold a more solid place on their respective frequency. Younger souls are difficult, their nature more erratic, prone to scattering. But one way or another, people find themselves.”

“Enverniam is not a difficult place to reach.”

“For a trained Dalishkova Knight speaking to other departed Dalishkova, of course not,” Ricard explained. “Making contact is fairly easy, provided you know what you are doing. Bringing a non-anointed soul back, however…that is another matter entirely.”

Another pair of footsteps entered the chamber from the entrance, lighter than those of Corcini. Ricard drew his blind gaze away from the pool. From the presence of warmth in the air, he detected it was a female, dark-skinned and desperate. Ermina. The level of salt excreted from her pores signified she had rushed to arrive here. Her breath, which she attempted to disguise, also gave off an aura of intense worry, perhaps rightly so; Marco did not tolerate tardiness.

“You were supposed to meet me an hour ago,” the man said, his tone cold.

“The subways in Cavarice were backed up, and traffic-”

“No excuses, plan better,” he cut her off. “You said you met with the German girl.”

“I did…what are you doing down here, anyway?”

“None of your concern.”

“Of course…I know it is not my place to question.”

“You gave her the amulet?” Marco ignored her.

“Yes.”

“And yet we’ve detected no incoming reception from it. Why is that?”

Ermina sighed. “I observed her a while before we spoke. In those few minutes, I managed to pick up a variant shift in the electrical pulses coursing through her body, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Humans here generate an energy signature comparable to those on the Earth plane, but…this was different. Stronger. A lot stronger…” she paused.

“Go on.”

“As if it could power several city blocks alone. She could easily have destroyed the amulet the moment it touched her palm.”

“And knowing this, you still allowed her to take it.”

“It was just a theory-”

“And you returned to Helias. Had you informed me of this prior, I would have kept you in Cavarice for reconnaissance. She’s the only one who can lead us to Tesla.”

“Not the only—ack!” The woman struggled as Marco began to choke her. “Please…”

“I do not intend to move on Constance yet. This is sensitive information for which I will not tolerate carelessness. You are well aware of the protocol we all must follow. Helias will not fall to the dogs again!” he spat, turning to Ricard. “Are you picking up anything yet? The life waning from her pathetic body, perhaps? After all, we can always sculpt her a new one!”

Ricard sighed. “All due respect sir, I’m beginning to lose focus.” It wasn’t true, of course. Ermina was not even half dead, and Marco had only done this to get a rise out of the man. It was his way of telling him to work faster. But the aging sculptor was not about to reveal the true extent of his perceptive powers in case this regime, too, were to one day meet its demise. Marco huffed and let go of the woman, who coughed and slumped to the floor gasping for breath. Ricard turned his attention back to the pool, where the organic matter now formed more favorable clumps between his fingers. So much more to work with, he smiled.

“You will return to Cavarice at once and await my instructions,” Corcini spoke to the woman.

“Yes sir.” Ermina continued coughing as she exited the chamber, her footsteps fading up the stone stairwell and back to the surface. There, she would emerge from a secret passageway that ended several blocks east beneath the ruins of an ancient guard tower. Ricard’s ancestors were once stationed there. And while this seemed a random thought at first, the old man knew everything was connected throughout the realms to serve a purpose. If he began by calling forth the most ancient souls first, it was inevitable that they would lead him to the more recently departed.

“Forgive me for that display of cruelty,” Marco said. “I imagine you’ve suffered enough in your lifetime.”

“Silence please, if you may,” Ricard replied. “A face is forming.”

The old man dipped both hands into the pool now, carefully tracing an assortment of shapes as they came into focus in his mind’s eye. If he did not take his time, it was possible to ruin the sculpture and lose the more important details. The organic matter would form itself into a body without a face. Then, that soulless entity would escape and wreak havoc across the frequencies. Lord knew the Dalishkova didn’t need another Flesh War on their hands.

The molding was a struggle to keep up with for a man of Ricard’s age. The images often passed through his mind much quicker than his frail hands could keep up with, though he quietly recited the Twelve Pillars, which allowed him to stay focused. The entire history of Helias came rushing through his fingertips and coursed through his veins now—the earliest Greek settlers who’d gotten lost at sea and stumbled upon the isle after kidnapping the Oracle Helene, their defeat of the Reapers with her help, the founding of the Dalishkova religion under her name and the gracious Salt God who had saved them. The First Revival, in which older Greek gods came back into favor among the youth, prompting a major reformation of the Dalishkova religion, and then the Second, which purged such ideas. The return of the Reapers and subsequent arrival of Charles DuPont, who proved a nuisance until he made a deal to rid Viktorium of the creatures in exchange for his permission to remain. The building of the Cavarice wall, his departure, and then the recent attacks…all told through the eyes of the false flesh. You fool.

“Ah, there you are,” the man smiled. “Yes…you’ve been through quite a bit of pain, haven’t you, my boy? So much pain and anger. But not to worry,” he whispered, stroking the outline of a child’s face that had formed in his tender hands. “You will return soon enough from Enverniam and have a new home here in Helias. We will take great care of you…Quentin Vaugrenard.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maxwell, would you like to sit?”

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s suicide,” Beatrice muttered.

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

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

“I’m not calling it off!”

“Sir, I didn’t say-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but-”

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, if you’ll allow me to-”

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

TERROR IN CAVARICE; OUTLANDERS RETURN, WEST WALL BREACHED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Maxwell!” the boy seethed.

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

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

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

“Let’s get this over with.”

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

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

“It is,” Lucien smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Funny.”

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

“You’re out of your mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’ll pass.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a promise!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Felt pretty good, yeah?” Lucien smirked.

“Like old times,” Max chuckled.

“We make a good tag team.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Getting his attention!”

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

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

“Get back!” the man roared.

“Smart,” Max scoffed.

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

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

“Not to worry,” the lanky boy smiled.

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

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 6

Pontius struggled to stay awake. He and the remaining squads of Dispatchers in charge of the west gate had been called into the office of General Rodin at midday for a firm bureaucratic reprimanding. They stood in line formation alongside the right of his desk now, arms tucked behind them and feet at the edge of an overly ornate tapestry rug whilst his sputtering screams of rage echoed off the chamber walls. He’d been at it for twenty minutes now.

The aging district commander closed his eyes with a sigh and tried in vain to pretend he was somewhere else. A pulsing migraine had set in around the ten minute mark. Still, it was nice to fantasize about the good old days of vacationing on the Sea of Helene; the plesiosaurs extending their long necks out from under the waves, the statue of the Salt God on bent knee over his sword, the naked courtesans bathing in the shallows with foam covering their tender breasts…

“PONTIUS!” the general shouted in his face, ripping him from his thoughts. “Pay attention.”

“Yes sir.” He waited for the man to step away before resuming the daydream.

It hadn’t been the easiest morning. He awoke in a cold sweat shortly before dawn with the worst hangover of his life. All throughout the night, he had tossed and turned, visited by an array of dark terrors both familiar and foreign. Flashbacks of Pascal, the battle, Igor, and other memories of things long past came to haunt him even in the daylight. To make matters worse, Gabriel and Antoine brought him to the hospital after he’d blacked out two blocks over from his assigned post. That meant the entire Dispatchers force was now aware that he wasn’t following orders, if they weren’t also aware of his drinking problem. Not that he cared. His stint as district commander would only last for the next couple weeks. After the mayor’s annual farce of a welcome gala, he could slip back into comfortable obscurity and leave this mess behind him to focus on what really mattered—finding Severo and bringing him home.

“How could you be so goddamn irresponsible?! Each and every one of you is an utter disgrace!” General Rodin continued. The man paced back and forth among the ranks, seething with authoritarian fury. Pontius rolled his eyes at the subterfuge. Archibald Rodin was in fact a leading corporate head who bought out the remaining Dispatcher precincts following DuPont’s exile. In the process, Governor Saunier quietly sent Pontius into retirement. It was his way of saving face and putting an end to a regime which held a very bad reputation in the minds of the Cavarice public; however, it also left someone wildly unqualified in charge of the most important security force in all of Viktorium. Of course none of the boys present in the room were aware of this fact. Probably why most of them were shaking in their boots.

“Now that the Outlanders have managed to reenter the city, I certainly hope you all know what’s at stake with LaCour’s welcome gala preparations in full swing. I think it goes without saying what happens next. An immediate full-scale investigation will be conducted over the course of the coming week, pending results of an internal inquiry.” The four squad leaders in attendance groaned. “Shut up!” Rodin yelled. “At this point, you ought to consider yourselves lucky you’re still on the job! If I could spare the manpower, I would suspend all of you without pay. But being that we lost no less than four squads in the senseless bloodshed that occurred last night, we’ll need all the boys we can get for gala security.” The man stopped pacing at the middle of the lineup. “Officers Simon and Perceval, you’re on recruiter duty in the Metropoliès tonight.”

“But sir-”

“The press will be having a field day at Morcourt, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to shine!”

“All due respect,” Pontius interjected, “that’s a horrible idea. Unless you’d like these two baby-faced jokers to be spokesmen for the entire Dispatchers force in front of the media. We have a reputation to uphold. At least two squads will need to provide additional security at Morcourt for the press conference to be sure no one assassinates La Cour. Now I can spare two extra teams at the expense of-”

“That won’t be necessary,” Rodin cut him off. “The mayor has his own private squads, and the last thing I need is for you to abandon your post at the wall following a critical attack. But that is something you did last night, wasn’t it?” The man narrowed his gaze and stepped over to Pontius, stopping inches from his face. He sniffed the air. Shit. “Why don’t you tell us, in your own words, Commander Pontius, why that was?”

He hesitated. Not because General Rodin was intimidating; quite the opposite was true. The chubby man stood a full foot shorter than him and possessed considerably less fighting skills, though he did manage to intimidate the rest of the captains in attendance. But it was difficult to recall the full details of everything that had happened between the actual event and his nightmares. He wished Pascal were here. The scrawny boy, though stupid, had proven himself a godsend in his final moments. In fact, he was the very reason Pontius was still alive right now. The district commander took a deep breath and resolved to do his best in memory of the fallen officer.

“The bomb went off a little after eight,” he explained. “Myself and two other squads were gathered on the wall above the west gate at that time. Pascal, Serge, Conrad, Abel, couple others. Pascal was arguing with me about opening the door because Captain Georges was knocking below. I expressly forbade him to do it, but he moved for the switch anyway. Then the blast came…Igor and his cohorts showed up. Killed three squads, easy.” Pontius winced a moment at his migraine before continuing. “I stumbled…down the stairs with my bum leg, grabbed a phase unit from one of the fallen kids. Took out as many Outlanders as I could. After that, Gabriel and his team arrived from the south end a couple minutes late. I saw Igor escape down an alley and tried to go after him. Got ambushed, that’s the last I remember before I was knocked out.”

“I see,” the general said, crinkling his nose and backing away. Pontius imagined he still reeked of alcohol. Rodin said nothing of it. “And you didn’t think to send Gabriel and the other arriving units after him? After all, you’ve a bum leg. And approximately how many Outlanders did you say you did away with on your own?”

The squad leaders in the room glared expectantly at him. Flashes of color and clanging metal filled the district commander’s mind as he struggled to remember the missing details of that fateful hour. He could recall a myriad of traveling blue sparks, but he wasn’t sure if that was phase unit fire or something else. Red was also a color that seemed rather prominent, and perhaps it was blood, but then came the slicing of metal, then white, then an ever-enveloping blackness…

“Pontius?”

“Yeah, sorry,” the man sighed. “Doc says I probably have a concussion after my fall on the sidewalk. Things are a little foggy right now.” The hangover migraine certainly wasn’t helping matters. The narrow space behind his eyeballs ached, his stomach was doing back flips, and his skull felt like a cement mixer. Still, there seemed one elusive detail between all those nightmarish flashes that presented itself again and again, as if the traveling blue spark were slowly reconnecting old synapses in his mind. He kept going back to the last figure he’d seen before blacking out, yet every time he tried to think clearly, the back of his head hit the pavement again. But he was almost certain it had been Severo. He was certain it was his son…

“I will of course expect a written report from you on this matter within three days time, no exceptions,” the general stated.

“Understood, sir.”

“As for the rest of you, your personal accounts are due on my desk by tomorrow morning. Rest assured gentlemen, no stone will be left unturned in this investigation. Every eye, every ear, every lingering touch, taste, and stench will spare no vantage point! I want to know exactly how those peasants managed to construct a bomb, and how in the bloody hell they got a hold of your phase units to do so! And I swear on my life, if it’s discovered in the course of your duties that any one of you aided these rats in any manner whatsoever, expulsion will be the very least of your worries! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir!” the squads shouted in broken unison.

“Now get the hell out of my office.” The four squads quickly made a beeline for the door, more than eager to leave. Pontius leaned off his cane and prepared to stumble out with the rest of them, but the general blocked his path. “Not you,” Rodin sneered. “If I might have a few words.”

“Almost a half-hour speech and you still didn’t rattle off enough, eh?” the commander sighed. Far behind him, the office door clicked shut, leaving them trapped in that stuffy old room that smelled of so much mahogany and leather-bound books. His aging superior circled around the desk and dug a bottle of brandy out from the bottom drawer with a single glass. “Well I guess that means I’m in trouble.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 2

With the trio now complete, the group continued on across the room, making their way toward a secret door that stood behind a bookcase full of fake textbooks and glued-on beakers. The young woman pulled on a green title which read ‘Electrical Engineering’, and the shelving unit slid aside to the left. Once inside the closet, she palmed a button on the wall. The door behind them abruptly closed. It produced a bit more noise than she would have hoped.

“Shit,” she cringed. “No doubt they heard that.” She felt a slight tug at her right arm just above the phase unit and looked down. Lucien’s clone was cowering at her side in the dark.

“Mum, I’m scared!” the boy whimpered.

“Don’t be such a baby,” her first son elbowed him. “It’s hard to believe you actually share DNA with me.”

“You’re scared too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“Yes you are!”

“Boys, stop it!” their mother scolded.

“He’s just better at hiding it,” the clone said. “Fine. Not hard to understand why you wouldn’t be afraid. At least I wasn’t born several minutes ago. Fear makes me human. Why don’t you go running into the crossfire so the Dispatchers could get rid of you?”

Constance gasped. She had assured her only son that she could tell them apart, and yet just now, she swore that the one grasping for dear life at her arm was the clone. Then again, it wasn’t as if they were true identical twins. She’d been taught that in the childhood of twins, there was always an alpha and a beta. If there were to be a beta, she was certain the clone would be it. He should have been petrified of everything. Yet that’s when she realized the two were likely now afraid of two very different things—the clone of not belonging, and her son, that the clone would take his place. Neither of these fears would aid them in their escape. Even worse, it had the potential to hinder them. Why did I ever think this was a good idea?

But it was too late to turn back now. Constance said nothing, instead adjusting the phase unit on her wrist and straightening her dress. She was glad to have chosen something black with a shorter cut just above the knee that facilitated running. Unfortunately, the heels had to go. She stooped down to remove them next, surveying her twin sons along the way. After this, she powered on the phase unit a moment and paced around the boys, hoping to uncover any small detail in the dark which might give the clone away. Nothing.

“Mum…what are you doing?”

“Which one of you is the clone?” the woman asked bluntly. “Your places in the escape plan matter-”

“Why?” the boy cried. “If we’re both your identical sons, what does it matter who goes in the box and who comes out?”

Constance smirked. “I guess that settles it. You’re the clone, then.”

“How can you say that?!” the child snapped. “You said you’d be able to tell us apart, so since you can’t, what does it matter if I’m dead!”

“Darling, please-”

“You don’t care, don’t act like you ever did!”

“Lucien!”

But the boy had already shoved open the closet door and run off into the darkness of the gallery. His mother’s heart sunk to her stomach, giving way to instinct. No time to think now. The sound of Dispatcher boots rushing across the room drowned out all else. Constance steeled herself and shoved her remaining son behind her as she tore through the open doorway and fired off three pulses to distract the approaching squads. The last shot shattered the glass of a nearby display and caught Captain Karl square in the side. He went down screaming. The rest of the squad rushed to his aid, and Constance ducked low behind a golden suit of prototype armor with Lucien at her side.

“Now, remember what we planned,” she whispered. “You take the middle aisle up to the Liberté sculpture and switch places with your brother-”

“Mum, I’m not the clone, it’s suicide for me if we switch!” he cut her off.

“Are you bloody KIDDING ME right now?!” the woman snapped. “There’s no way this is going to work, you and I will not make it out alive if we stay together, that was the whole point of involving a clone!”

“Constance Renou!” a deep voice bellowed from the front of the gallery. Marco Corcini. “Oh yes. We know you are in here. I have waited a long time for this day. Five Earth years, to be exact, and yet it feels so much longer,” he chuckled, sauntering up the far aisle. Constance crept out from behind the armor suit, staying low against a row of glass tabletop display cases. She gestured for her son to move opposite her along the side of the aisle up until he reached the first gap, which led to the middle.

“Go!” she whispered, but Lucien wasn’t having it. He had knelt down with his back glued to a display, visibly shaking as a squad of Dispatchers crept along the middle aisle two meters away. Shit. Constance hadn’t seen or heard them over Corcini, so it was fortunate he had. The Defense Minister’s voice did have a way of worming itself into the brains of the vulnerable, a fact she’d almost forgotten, given his Dalishkova background.

“You can’t hide forever,” Marco sneered from across the way. Meanwhile, a series of quickened footsteps plodded along the opposite side of the gallery wall, prompting Dispatchers to fire pulses in their direction. When the noise of breaking glass and electricity stopped, Constance heard a snap of fingers farther down the middle aisle. The second squad appeared from around the corner and marched in their direction, kneeling to take aim.

“RUN!” Renou shrieked, shoving Lucien toward the center aisle and firing off several pulses. She managed to blast through the chest of one man, then the head of another. The blue glow of her phase unit illuminated blood splatter along the way as she charged on toward the entrance, stopping just short of the Liberté sculpture. She then ducked out of sight around a nearby display case and inched her way toward the bronze centerpiece. More Dispatchers were flooding the aisle from where she’d come, and the clone had since drawn another squad to the far side of the gallery. This had not been part of her original plan, but Constance soon realized the center aisle was now perhaps the safest place to be. She doubted this for a brief second until she saw Corcini’s staunch frame round the corner. Definitely the safest, she thought.

“Come now, Constance. You don’t honestly believe you can escape us, do you?” the man called out. “If you and your child would come quietly, I can ensure you will both live out the rest of your lives in peace on the Alabaster Coast.”

The woman bit her lip and drew her knees up to her chest, turning up the settings on her phase unit to the highest level. No way in hell. The ‘Alabaster Coast’ was nothing more than a fancy name for the Bay Asylum, where everyone with minor mental issues and other undesirables, to political enemies, to traitors, terrorists and assassins, all the way up to schizophrenic barbarians were kept under lock and key. And it most certainly was not a place of peace or safety, nor was it any place for a child. Sociopaths like Corcini, however, seemed to be permitted free reign in Viktorium.

Constance took a deep breath, her heart pounding, and peered around the corner of the display. She did not catch sight of any Dispatchers, however that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Marco often employed cloaker coats—elite teams of  special ops soldiers with cloaking devices—to flush out his enemies. In addition, she couldn’t make out much beyond the Liberté sculpture up ahead as it blocked the path, and even worse, she had yet to see Lucien…either of the Luciens. What if they’ve both been caught? she panicked. Somehow, she wondered if it even mattered anymore. Without her child, there was little left to fight for, and it seemed unlikely they would make it out of here alive. But I don’t know that for sure. Corcini would have announced it. Rising to her feet, Constance steeled herself again and stepped out into the center aisle. This was a stupid idea, but she figured as long as she could draw the soldiers her way, there’d be less of them to chase her sons.

“MARCO!” she shouted. Two cloaker coats immediately flashed into view on either side of the Liberté sculpture, prompting the angered mother to fire. Blinding blue bolts and static flew through the air, leaving trails in their wake. She blasted through the arm of the left one, but missed twice on the right due to recoil. The man returned fire. In the light of that pulse, the entire gallery seemed to come alive. Constance saw her life flash before her eyes. His shot would have taken her head clean off, had a pair of tiny arms not grabbed waist and shoved her to the floor behind a row of square cases. A loud sonic boom sounded as the spark extinguished further up the aisle, causing glass to explode everywhere. Of course. The phase units cloaker coats wore tended to have a shorter range for assassination purposes. Fortunately, the shock had only managed to crack the glass above Renou and her son. They were safe for now.

“Are you all right?” she whispered.

“Yeah…had to switch places with the clone-”

“LOOK OUT!”

A Dispatcher marched toward them from the far wall and fired. Constance caught the bolt in her palm and rose to her feet, firing it back at his leg. There was a bright splash of blood as the man’s kneecap exploded and he went down screaming. Keeping Lucien behind her, the angered mother ducked left around the corner, and again behind yet another row of display cases parallel with the Liberté sculpture. She lurched forward a moment to glance over the tabletop ahead of them. Another stupid idea, but it was best to reassess their chances of escape. The entrance was in sight, though guarded by a single squad of three, yet that hardly seemed protocol. And who knew how many cloaker coats there were skulking around the gallery.

Constance leaned back to check the settings on her phase unit again. She considered using the infrasound, but that was dangerous on one’s eardrums, and using the flame in the gallery was nothing short of suicide. Various banners and flags hung from the ceiling above, not to mention the curtains along the walls. Aside from that, if they were ever to return, she hoped to leave the house intact so they could live out the rest of their lives undisturbed. Yeah right. That might as well have been a fantasy. She wrapped a loving arm around Lucien a moment and listened. The room had grown eerily quiet. Then she heard the crunch of glass beneath a boot around the display case behind them.

“Shit!” she clenched her teeth, turning to whisper in her son’s ear. “You go left and run as fast as you can down the center aisle, I’ll stay close to the wall and cover you as we make a break for the entrance-”

“But Mum-”

“I love you, go, GO!”

The boy scrambled away, slipping over glass and rubble as Constance charged her phase unit and whirled around to fire at the Dispatcher behind her. She missed again, still not used to the recoil. He returned fire. She tried to dodge it by stepping aside, but the pulse caught her square in the left shoulder. She shrieked in pain and aimed at the only place she knew she couldn’t miss—the display table. A bright blast of electricity and static shattered the glass, sending shards flying up in the air. It gave her a chance to get away, at least.

Renou hopped over the next row of tables and ducked down, hearing a flurry of footsteps heading in her direction. Her entire body ached now, and she was certain the soles of her feet were cut up from plodding over broken glass. She poked her head out briefly to fire pulses again, trying to focus more on the Dispatchers guarding the entrance. If only her son could get away, that was all that mattered anymore. He was the future of Viktorium, after all. But she couldn’t see him in the center aisle anymore, and wondered if perhaps he’d taken a roundabout way. Staying low, Constance ducked back out over to the left and around another row of cases. That’s when Marco’s voice came again, stopping her dead in her tracks.

“Oh Constance!” the man shouted. “We have your son! You’d best give up now.”

The mother’s heart thudded deep in her chest.

“You’re bluffing!” she replied, remaining hidden. A lump was forming in her throat.

“Am I?” Corcini snarled. The crunch of broken glass and shuffling footsteps combined with the desperate gasps of a child had never been a louder sound in the cold dark of that gallery. Constance panicked. Either they had the clone or they had her real son, and all she could do was hope her plan would work, that they in fact had captured the clone and her real son was hiding somewhere safe in the shadows. But there was no way to know for sure. Not really, and being that she had also bonded with the clone, the loss of either one would prove devastating in so many ways. The only thought which lent her any comfort now was that they’d only managed to apprehend one of the two. We still have a chance. And still, she had to pretend as if this were her only son. That cut their chances of escape in half. Unless the clone had already been destroyed. The Helias Flesh was not known for being particularly stable, and she still could not be sure if they’d chosen the correct vial. Shit.

“You leave him alone!” she shrieked, rising into the open and tearing the phase unit off her bony wrist. The heavy thing fell to the floor with a thud. Two Dispatchers were holding tight to Lucien, who struggled and squirmed under their grasp until one of them held a knife up to his throat. The other switched on his phase unit to illuminate the boy’s face as they dragged him out into the center aisle near the sculpture. Constance rushed over the join them, but soon found herself in the custody of cloaker coats as they flashed into visibility ahead of her and took her by the arms. Suddenly, her movements weren’t her own anymore, and she struggled to escape.

“Unhand me, you fools! I’ll have you all demoted, no, worse! I’ll have you dispatched and deported, that’s a promise-”

“Do shut up,” Marco Corcini cut her off. They shoved her to her knees in front of him. All the mother could do now was look upon the terrified face of her child as he stood beneath the blue glow of phase units, powerless to save either one of them. She should have listened to Charles from the very beginning, but still, Charles should have listened to her before appointing this madman as minister of defense. A madman who belonged in the Alabaster Bay Asylum himself.

“What the bloody hell do you want from us?!” Constance yelled. The menacing man grinned, and the scars that covered his dark, aging face turned to daggers. His lower lip was turned downward in a permanent snarl reminiscent of a rabid dog. One had to wonder if he was just as insane.

“You know what I want,” he replied. “I’m looking for your husband. You and your son are no doubt a catch in the same web, however Charles was first on my list. If you would be good enough to give yourselves up now and reveal his location, I will-”

“Fuck off!” the woman spat.

“I believe I’m being more than generous in my offer,” Corcini bellowed, brushing a hand over her son’s hair.

“Don’t you dare touch-”

“Ah ah,” the man snapped his fingers. One of the Dispatchers holding onto Constance charged his phase unit and zapped her. The sudden shock jolted through her nervous system and caused her to vomit. Marco smirked and knelt down to look her in the eye, removing a small handkerchief from his pocket. She struggled to turn away as he proceeded to wipe her chin, though she gave in. “You know…royal families have been executed in coup d’états for centuries. You and your son could live out a decent life.”

“I’d rather choose exile than the asylum!”

“You would be living in the warden’s quarters, naturally,” the man sighed. “Admittedly not as luxurious a place as this, but,” he glanced around at the tapestries on the walls, “I would allow you to keep your lovely drapes.”

“You son of a bitch!”

“Ah, strike two,” the man snapped his fingers again, and a stronger jolt shot through Renou’s body. She dry heaved as a feeling of extreme dizziness and nausea overcame her. The outline of Marco’s figure began to grow blurry in the dark, and her nose started running. She looked down a moment at the illuminated marble floor beneath the glow of the phase units and her heart jumped. It was blood.

“Let my mother go, you can have me!” Lucien cried. “Please, please just take me!”

“No,” Constance whimpered in defeat.

“No? Ah, but I do think the boy has a rather splendid idea,” Marco sneered. “I have no children, after all. I have often wondered, if I were to have an heir of my own in this broken world which you are so adamant on saving-”

“Not over my dead BODY!” the woman shouted.

“Fine, it’s not as if you respect death anyway. Strike three.” Corcini snapped his fingers again, and the Dispatcher holding the knife to Lucien’s throat slashed his jugular. The boy’s blue eyes immediately went wide with horror, paling as he looked on his mother for the last time in shock. Blood squirted out like a fountain from his tiny neck, drenching the black and white floor and staining the crunched glass beneath the boots of the cloaker coats. His body convulsed in the throes of death like a wild animal, and still the Dispatchers held him steady so Constance was forced to stare at the entire spectacle until it had ended.

She felt like vomiting again. A series of audible gasps escaped her throat as she fought her captors to release her arm so she could cover her mouth, but they wouldn’t have it. The lump in her throat from earlier suddenly burst forth in raw emotion, and she cried. Sobbed. Wailed. She cried so hard, she feared the sound of her own voice might turn her deaf. And she prayed Corcini would silence her. Her stomach wretched, her heart sunk. If she could have exploded in a blast of electric light into sheer nothingness like those people who had entered the Viktoria I machine, she would have. Who was a clone, who wasn’t, none of it mattered anymore. They had just murdered her son, and that feeling was real.

Finally, Marco grabbed her by the neck and squeezed tight. Yes, do it. I have nothing left to live for now anyway, and I was foolish to believe I could escape. Give me the sweet embrace of death, that I might join my son.

“Now that I have your full attention…I’m not going to ask again,” the man said coldly.

“You bastard, are you insane?!” Constance chuckled in disbelief. “You’ve just lost your only leverage, and me, my only son. Why don’t you go ahead and snap my neck?”

“I’m sure I could,” the man reasoned. “But then I would be depriving you of the most beautiful feeling you could ever have. Indeed, it may very well be the only thing you can feel after tonight.”

“And what’s that?”

“Revenge, Miss Renou. Because I know Charles has slighted you, as he has done to us all. The way I see things, you and your child are just as much a victim as everyone else who has crossed over to this world, placing their misguided faith in the idea of a better future under DuPont. But I know you are smarter than that, which is why I am willing to allow you to stay here in Viktorium, provided you meet certain requirements.”

“Funny,” Constance rolled her eyes, “I thought you were speaking of revenge against you.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence.” Corcini narrowed his gaze. “You have acquired stock in various companies as a result of your association with Charles, yes? Zuviban Clockworks, LaFout Taylors, Courges Print & Press, Montcherie’s Clothing & Textiles…even access to DuPont Airships & Co. At least three of these are front organizations funneling funds into certain secret accounts in Helias. Accounts which, oddly enough, belong to several leading Radical Party members based in Cavarice who do substantial amounts of work on election campaigns. Need I go on, Madam President? If that is indeed the title you prefer.”

“I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about.”

“You want your husband gone, and so do we,” Marco explained. “And the world we both come from is not so kind to the prospect of women gaining power. Here in Viktorium, however, anything is possible. That is why I would actually prefer you to remain here.”

“So why murder my son?”

“Because without an heir, you have no legitimate claim to this world, and neither does DuPont. Really, I am allowing you to live out the rest of your life as you wish, albeit as a glorified figurehead. It’s the best you can hope for, really, before your departure to the Reapers. As I said, I believe I’m being rather gracious. Still, I could kill you right now and there would be no happiness for you before you ultimately walk the Dark Realm. No before, and no ever after. No revenge against Charles-”

“Fine,” Constance cut him off. “He’s on the Dantua Road heading east for the Aussonne Mountains. There is an underground enclosure high in the hilltops close to the summit of Mount Verlaine. That’s as much as I know. I assume you can find him there.”

“Thank you for your cooperation, Miss Renou,” Marco said. “Although I believe it may be wiser to wait a few years…perhaps to restore faith in the people.” Corcini paced over to a large green and black flag, sewn by Constance herself, and held it out. The bottom, being solid green, represented the Earth plane, and the black above, the night sky. Crossed with diagonal green stripes and yellow stars, it was the first created to represent the frequency of Viktorium. “This was once our dream, was it not? A dream that would sooner break without Charles’ influence.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Revolution, of course,” Corcini smiled. “The same manner in which the greatest empires of the world have been built. We can let them have their day. Let them believe it’s their doing, not ours. We founded this place, after all.”

“Charles founded this place,” Constance reminded him.

“Don’t tell me you feel sympathy for the old man already. Besides, you and I both know that’s not true.”

“So say we wait until 1915,” she continued. “Then what? You’re going to kill me?”

“You’ll have to stand trial, of course. Proclaim your hard-fought innocence. Then you’ll have your reign of power as president. I can’t promise I won’t cut it short. I do answer to the Dalishkova Council, after all, and they have their own ideas for governance. What I can promise you is that Charles will be gone, and the people will be inspired by your example. Again…it’s the best you can hope for.”

“You’re so gracious!” Constance mocked him. “Now if you are finished, get the fuck out of my house.”

“As you wish. Men!” he called to the remaining squads, “I think our work is done finished here. Bring the injured out to the forest and we’ll commence treatment. Goodnight, Miss Renou. Oh, and I’ll be in touch regarding which blocks are to be shut down first by the Zoning Commission. I will extend your stay as much as possible, however there are those in our organization who would much rather see Viktorium eradicated altogether, so I think it best to keep up appearances for now…make them believe we are complying while keeping the new arrivals satiated.”

“I see. And will you comply with the Dalishkova Council, then?”

“I have no intention of doing any such thing.”

“I didn’t think you would. Goodnight, Minister.”

The man said nothing more as he rounded up the remaining squads. They marched out without a word, leaving Constance Renou broken and alone in the darkness of the gallery. The ambient light from the gas lamps out in the hallway provided little illumination with which to see, so she scrambled over to grab the phase unit she’d previously discarded. Kneeling back at the sculpture over the body of her deceased son, she switched it on and set it on the floor. For the longest time, she sat there thinking on her sins, and all the many lies and cons which had brought her to this point. She looked around her at the shattered room, at the flags she had sewn, the many destroyed inventions of Charles put on display. And she looked too at Lucien, her only son, a pure, sweet, and innocent child born from the very worst of her transgressions.

The room was quiet now, too quiet, save for the flickering electric hum of the phase unit. But unlike a fire, it didn’t provide any warmth. Nothing did anymore. There was no one to comfort her, and no one to protect. Marco would be coming for Charles now, probably to enslave him until such time a public spectacle could be made over his exile. They were completely finished as a royal family in Viktorium. For better or worse, it seemed the Dalishkova had already won.

Constance began to cry. And yet for what specific reason, she did not know. Was it loss? And if so, loss of what? Pride? Sanity? Her child? After all, she was getting exactly what she wanted; guaranteed reign of power in Viktorium for a time, during which she could extend her influence as much as possible and hopefully turn the people against the Dalishkova. And yet not even that much was guaranteed. Who knew when her reign as president would end, after all? She still had to provide for her son, and…my son…

She stroked the dead child’s golden hair, the same color as her own, and sobbed quietly. Sobbed so hard, she felt her chest tighten and her stomach contract. Her heart was breaking. He was everything she had ever wanted, and up until now, everything she had done was for him. The money from Zuviban Clockworks was being siphoned into a private offshore account for him, so that when he came of age, he could attend a school or start his own business, whatever his fancy desired. Charles provided for both of them of course, but the truth was that she had never wanted to rely on the man. DuPont was nothing more than a greedy narcissist, and she had to get away from him.

Becoming the first female president, or hell, even mayor would have left her with more than enough to provide for Lucien on her own. Yet the sad truth was that she needed DuPont out of the picture. She needed men like Marco Corcini to help, at least for now. If that was the only way to safely remain in Viktorium, so be it. She may not win against the Dalishkova in the end, but she certainly was not about to go down without a fight. But now that he had taken her only son, what did she have left to fight for? She could feel the power, the well-bred strength and resolve of her mother’s genes draining away with every flicker of the phase unit.

And she cried because she felt so powerless here, alone, in the dark, with only the sounds of electricity and her own sobs, and the crunch of glass as footsteps approached from behind…

Constance didn’t think. She had nothing left to protect, and yet she’d be damned if one of those Dispatchers or even Corcini was about to disturb her peace by barging in on her as she mourned the death of her only son. In one swift movement, she snatched the phase unit in front of her and whirled around on her back to take aim at the intruder.

“Mum?” a golden-haired, blue-eyed boy asked. “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

“Oh my god!” the mother exclaimed, dropping the phase unit and scrambling on her knees to embrace him. Broken glass scraped across her legs creating fresh cuts and wounds, leaving glittering shards in their wake, but she didn’t care. Her son was all that mattered. All that ever mattered. “Lucien, you’re alive!” she cried. “You’re alive, my sweet boy, I never doubted you for a second! It must have been the clone, my plan worked, they only killed the clone! Oh darling, it was the clone!”

Her spirit was renewed. An intense joy had welled up inside her again, and with it, an even better plan. Now, she knew she could win against the Dalishkova. Marco would never see it coming. As long as Lucien was alive, there was hope. But something began to seem off as Constance knelt in the rubble of the gallery, holding fast onto him. His body seemed to turn cold as a clam under her touch, and he shook with what seemed like fear. As Renou pulled back and took his hands, it looked as if he were sweating profusely.

“Mum…where did the rest of me go?”

“The rest of you?” the mother worried, holding a hand to his forehead to see if it was a fever. He was ice cold. “Darling, you’re here…you’re right here, and I’m so glad you are.” She stroked his face and went to wipe away his tears, only to discover they’d frozen onto his cheek. Curious, she chipped off the end of it with her fingernail. It broke off into her palm. “Lucien,” she panicked, “what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I closed my eyes and he wasn’t there anymore…I wonder if that’s why I’m sad.”

“Who? Who wasn’t there?”

“My brother,” the boy whimpered.

“Forget it darling, you don’t have a brother, it was probably just a bad dream,” Constance deflected. “I’m here for you now, all right? I promise. Mama’s here for you now.”

It was at this point that she realized she had been holding the clone in her arms all this time. Tears certainly didn’t freeze on a normal human face. She worried, though, if he would turn out to be okay, or if he would self-destruct at any point. It was a possibility. His skin was so cold, but after a long time of holding him, his temperature seemed to come up just fine on its own. Still, no one knew as much about the Helias Flesh as Charles, and yet after tonight, there was no way she could ask; Marco would no doubt inform DuPont of the boy’s death.

Constance would have to be vigilant. She would have to hide him somewhere, before the whole of Viktorium found out. Because for better or worse now, this clone was her son, or at least what was left of him. And if anything happened to her or Charles, the future of the afterlife would be in his hands.

Those ice cold, false-fleshed hands…

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