Night Of The Wolf – Part 32

Lucien Riviere stood in the middle of North Point Transit Station and closed his eyes. The voices were whispering at him again over the din of the crowd. Anxious, terrified voices that spun like a whirlwind, tracing the length of his body. Some passed by, while others cut right through him. His skin crawled at every utterance. The moment one left, another took its place, leaving him gasping on the verge of panic. This affliction had gone on ever since he was a child.

He recalled quite well the memory of standing there in the cold dark of his father’s museum, his mother clutching him tightly as the tears froze onto his face. She was blood-drenched and warm. He was clean, soft, and yet rigid in place—a melting ice sculpture. In that moment, it seemed the presence of his mother had been enough to calm the voices. Other methods over the years did comparatively little to quell their burning rage. Alcohol, huffing the occasional cologne, and swallowing capsules of morphine were but a temporary fix afforded by his Level One clearance. This time, however, he had decided to pay a visit to Constance. If nothing else, perhaps she could jog his memory regarding the events of that fateful day.

Lucien concentrated hard on the sounds of the station—the father behind seeing his daughter off at the platform, the intercom spouting off destinations overhead, the familiar ding of the train doors as they opened. The lanky boy opened his eyes and gazed upward to the right where his mother’s office stood atop an outcropping that overlooked the entire station. The lights were on. And inside, there she was, pacing back and forth with her telephone. In some ways, it felt like coming home. But in others…

“Sir, you look lost. Can I help you?” Blast. He’d forgotten that her platform guards were paid ridiculous amounts of money to question and apprehend potential stowaways.

“Ah yes, I’m here to see Director Renou,” Lucien mumbled. The sweat on his back grew cold as he snapped back to reality.

“You have the appropriate clearance, I trust?”

“Yes sir,” the boy said, handing the man his security pass. The guard looked it over.

“Lucien Riviere…seems to check out. This way, please.”

The man led him through the bustling crowd and over to the west stairwell, where a security checkpoint had been set up to control the flow of employees and visitors on business. Lucien yawned and waited in the queue, resisting the urge to close his eyes again. He pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. 2:04 PM. Thank god the line was processed in rather quickly. At this rate, he’d have about ten minutes with his mother, which was just enough to hop the A-train out of the Metropolies and make it back to the safe house in time to check on Igor. Igor, that evil menace, he thought. And yet in some ways, the words that boy had said before he left stuck with him. “Don’t think for a second that you and I aren’t alike, chicken. I can smell it all over you. I’ve tasted it in your blood. You’re just one crack away from turning full Outlander. And when it happens…I’ll be waiting.”

“Sir…sir, your papers please!”

“What? Oh, of course,” Lucien stammered.

“Are you feeling all right?”

“Fine, thank you.”

The guard eyed him suspiciously and stamped the papers to let him through the gate. As Lucien plodded up the concrete steps, his thoughts ran rampant as to what he’d say to his mother once he entered her office. It had been months since they’d seen one another—at least in so informal a capacity—and there was no telling how she would react to him barging in unannounced. The last time was little more than a “here’s your security clearance, now get out.” But this was different. He was beginning to feel unsure of himself for whatever reason. Perhaps it was Igor’s words, or maybe doubts about the direction his plans for the city were taking. Either way, he did need information on his mother’s recent projects. And morphine.

Lucien made a right at the top of the stairway past an array of offices before settling on the center one. He was sweating again at the sound of her voice as she paced about, throwing a fit. He put his ear up to the door to listen.

“No…no, I don’t care what you do, just keep it under wraps! If the papers find out, we’re bloody finished…no, you fucking imbecile! And in the meantime, I want at least three squads patrolling the Barreau district to keep an eye out for anyone skulking about. And keep Pontius at the precinct…I see. Has anyone apprehended Tomas yet? Well get on it!” She slammed the receiver down. Now certainly didn’t seem like the best time to knock, but it was the only time. Lucien held his breath and went for it.

“What the!” his mother began to bark, but composed herself. “Enter!” Her son opened the door.

“Hello, Mother.” Her eyes widened.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here!” she seethed, rushing over to the door to close it behind them for privacy. “This really is not a good time!”

“Since when is it ever?” Lucien sighed. He stepped across the room to draw the blinds. “I know you don’t take the greatest pleasure in seeing me. What was it you called me again in the mayor’s office? ‘Riffraff’?”

“The art of theatre is obviously lost on you,” Constance rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “I know it’s been rather difficult on us over the years, and for that I apologize. You think it’s easy for me, knowing you’ve grown up in that shithole of a district-”

“Oh, save it!” he cut her off. “Everything always has to be about you, doesn’t it? You should be happy to know I’ve made my way just fine, with little help from you. Or the remainder of Dad’s assets for that matter, which by the way is the only reason you continue to live in the lap of luxury! So don’t try to tell me it’s been anything less than easy. You seem to be doing just fine without me.” Tears were beginning to flood his eyes, and as they streamed down, they seemed to stop cold. No…

“Why did you come here? Oh, shit…” his mother breathed, stepping over to him. She put her hands up to his face and caressed those frigid crystals with her fingertips. “It’s happening again, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry, Mum…I don’t know why. I can’t remember the rest of that day in Dad’s gallery. But you looked so frightened, so upset. All I want…all I ever wanted was to ease that pain…to be the son you always wanted me to be.”

“Oh, Lucien,” Constance sighed, hugging him tight.

“But I’m not, am I? And both of us know that.” The tears he cried now felt warm, soft, even as his mother’s body grew rigid and cold in his arms. It was as if he’d breathed his own tension into her, using her emotion as a pillar of strength. “You’ve lied to me this entire time.”

She let go of him, her arms stiff. Lucien backed away to face the wall. He considered this newfound power a moment, and all the possibilities it might entail if he chose to seize the full force of it. To kill his mother right now if he chose, assume his birthright, leave her like a frozen statue in his father’s museum. No. Igor had it all wrong. Lucien was nothing like him. He was better. Stronger. Able to feign emotion and drive the entire stone-cold stake of it through the hearts of every last citizen in Cavarice. But today was not that day. Today, he needed grounding.

“I did what I had to,” Constance spoke, shivering as she crossed her arms again. “To protect you, and the future of this city-”

“By abandoning me in that goddamn orphanage?” Lucien spun around. “Oh yeah Mother, you’ve done a stellar job!”

“I watched you die!” Constance shouted. “Marco Corcini and his men, they came for us that night. He cut my own son’s throat right in front of me! Then he left me all alone in that gallery of misery, mourning your…my son’s…death. And then out you came, in all of your cloned glory, the only piece of Lucien Francois DuPont I had left! So I hid you as best I could, hoping that monster would never find you. But you, Lucien Riviere, are still my son!”

“What…” the boy shuddered. A tightness was forming in his chest. “That can’t be true.”

“What can’t be true? I thought you remembered-”

“No…no, I remember you taking me into your arms, telling me everything was all right. I remember you talking to Dad on the hologrid, I remember sneaking down the secret passage to his lab, I remember waking…fuck!” He was a getting a splitting headache. How could this be real? He felt these memories were a part of him, and yet…it was as if they belonged to someone else. Blades and fragments cut through his mind. Images of what he remembered—sneaking around display cases, watching the boy get his throat cut, but also being that boy—it was too much to process.

“Darling? Darling, stick with me, all right?” Constance wrapped her arms around him, but he shoved her away.

“NO!” Lucien roared, smacking the lamp off her desk. It flew against the far wall and shattered. His mother jumped. “I am not your son. I never was. And this image, this face that you love so much…it’s just the mask of a dead boy. Your child is gone.”

Constance huffed, the familiar pink hue returning to her skin as the blood rushed back to her face. There was that staunch look of determination again in her eyes, the kind that Lucien had resented for years. Perhaps everything she wanted had come to pass by sheer will alone. Such a personality could topple empires. Maybe that’s why he hated her so—he could never muster up a similar courage. Every action he’d taken thus far was based on the fear of failure, as if it were woven into him from the moment he had awoken on that work table. Something in him was weak, subpar, flawed. And he was reminded of it every time he looked at her. From his exile to the western districts to the stony gaze that pierced him. It was obvious she did not care for him as she had her real son. The distance she kept was destroying him.

“Here,” she sighed, snatching a piece of paper off her desk. She scrawled down a list of items. “I want you to take this to the chemist at 4th and Main. He’ll know what to do.” She threw down her pen and handed it to him.

“What the bloody hell is this?”

“Medicine. It will keep you intact…for a while, at least. It’s stronger than the morphine, with no side effects. Dr. Kotzias is a personal friend of mine from Helias, so you can trust him. But you must ask for him, and only him.”

Lucien paused. “If this formula should lead to my death-”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” his mother cut him off. “There’d be nothing to gain by that, now would there? If you really want to go through life believing I don’t give a rat’s arse about you, that’s certainly your prerogative. At least I know my conscience will be clear.”

“…You’ll be next.”

“Great to know we’re on the same page.”

Lucien paced around the front of her desk, aimlessly thumbing over her work papers as he went. Their heated exchange had almost made him forget what he came here for in the first place. He needed access clearance to his father’s old airship hangar for the next phase of the revolution. Mayor La Cour’s welcome gala presented them with the perfect opportunity.

His mother, of course, would again be forced to answer to the esteemed citizens of Cavarice, who would soon enough be screaming for more blood. Such a plan would accomplish two goals in one—bringing the city to its knees, while utterly destroying Constance Renou. He wanted to leave her as weak and powerless as she’d left him, alone in a crumbling house, starving to her very last breath. Perhaps he’d even serve her up on a platter to Igor and watch him devour what remained of her flesh.

“Perhaps there is something I can do for you in return, since you’ve been so gracious,” the lanky boy smiled. “La Cour’s welcome gala is being moved to Verdevale, yes? I assume there will be an air show to entertain the new arrivals.”

“That’s correct. Bit of a nightmare to organize on such short notice. I’ve been calling pilots all morning. Half of them have yet to respond, and the other half are still soiling themselves over the attack on the wall. I’ve arranged for telegrams to be personally delivered to them with access codes to the hangar, should anyone grow bollocks enough to show up. All my couriers are out on other runs. If you and your Barreau boys wouldn’t mind delivering the telegrams, it’d certainly take a load off my back.” Constance stepped over to her box of outgoing mail, stamping the appropriate envelopes before handing him the stack. “Just be as discreet as you can, yeah?”

“Of course.”

“And Lucien…do take care of yourself.”

“Not to worry, Mother. I do a better job of that than you ever have.” Lucien moved for the door, but she stopped him.

“You think you have all the answers, don’t you?” she smirked. “You wouldn’t have come here today if you didn’t require my help. I know you’re not about to listen to anything else I say, but I certainly hope you keep in mind that others out there will not be as forgiving as I am. Fact is, you’re only around for as long as anyone needs you. My advice? Stay useful and don’t be such a cunt.”

“Funny,” the boy chuckled. “Being a cunt seems to work just fine for you.”

He stormed out, slamming the door behind him. The uncontrollable wave of voices returned in her absence, growing ever louder again as he descended the concrete steps back to the station platform. Something about her last words stuck with him like a cut from Igor’s dull blade. They mixed with the din of the crowd below, penetrating his skull and swirling around him in a cacophonous roar that threatened to send him over the edge. Still, he held fast to the stack of telegrams under his arm and made haste for 4th and Main.

“I can’t wait to watch you die,” he muttered to himself.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blacked out.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 23

Severo froze. Every instinct of training within him told the young knight not to answer, though the homesick child somewhere deep inside was begging him to. He had buried that side of himself years ago out of necessity. And yet something about that man’s voice brought it all screaming back to the surface like the false-fleshed body which had served as his corpse. He had done his best to avoid such feelings on the night of the attack, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before his father managed to track him down. Pontius.

“You are my son…are you not?”

Shit. There was no avoiding it now. Sure, he could put up a psychic barrier between them to make his father believe he wasn’t there, but that would be far more effort than it was worth. As it was, the man had lived with a substantial guilt over losing him all those years ago in Helias. Perhaps that was the weight Severo felt in his chest now. His father’s feeling…so much pain. So much anger and sorrow. So much love for his son. Tears streamed down the boy’s face, though he refused to budge.

“I am,” he answered. His heart thudded furiously in his chest.

“What the hell happened, Sev?”

“I did what I had to do,” the boy breathed. “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you had to let me go. It wasn’t safe for you-”

“Bullshit! Look at me,” Pontius cut him off. The knight hesitated. “Turn around Severo, and look at me! Don’t you dare shut me out. You used to do that when you were a kid. I won’t have it. Not now.”

“I don’t know why you think I feel ANYTHING for you!” the boy snapped, facing his father. “You never knew when to let go, even after I died! That day on the beach, when you took a picture of me holding the trout. I saw you in the distance with your camera, and though your face was hidden, I knew it was you. I could have had you thrown in prison.”

“Everyone called me insane when I told them you were still alive. Everyone! So what, am I supposed to be grateful-”

“Yes!”

“Goddamn, they’ve done quite a number on you.”

“Perhaps I’m not your son.” Severo clenched his teeth as he felt his lower lip begin to tremble. “Maybe he really did drown and wash up on the beach that day.”

“No,” Pontius shook his head. “I can’t accept that. I won’t! I saw you on the Cassius, and we were…we were heading home,” the man choked through his tears. “I was going to bring you home, Sev!”

“Don’t you understand? I was home. I made my choice, and it wasn’t you…I’m sorry.”

Pontius bit his lip and looked nervously about the room, avoiding his son’s stone cold gaze. Severo did not feel he owed the man anything. He was Dalishkova now, through and through, and his father was branded a permanent enemy of Helias. For years, Pontius had completely cut him off from his mother and denied him of his true purpose. He had kidnapped him and brought him to live in Cavarice, where life was miserable and devoid of freedom. Anyone who spoke out against the city’s oligarchy faced imprisonment or death. And while the Dalishkova in Helias were certainly strict, it was nowhere near as bad as living beneath the constant smokescreen of Viktorium’s capital city.

“At least tell me what you’re doing here, huh?” Pontius sighed.

“I’m on a mission. That’s all I can tell you. Don’t worry, I won’t get in your way.”

“I’ll try to stay clear too,” the man nodded. “How’s the training going?”

“I’ve completed Five of the Seven Trials. After this, I’ll be returning to Helias for the final Two.”

“Impressive,” his father raised an eyebrow. “I know those aren’t easy for initiates.”

“They are difficult, but…I’ve so far been at the top of my class.” Severo relented as a sudden sympathetic feeling began to overcome him. This was a man who, despite his many faults, clearly loved his son. Perhaps it was time to put the past away.

“Good…that’s great,” Pontius smiled. “I’m proud of you. I mean that.” The two again avoided looking one another in the eye, perhaps out of fear of what they might find if they did. The gravitational pull in Severo’s chest created such a feeling of tension, he wished he could slice it with a sword. Still, he knew that even once they had both left this room, they would each carry a piece of it with them, a sense of connection and longing to continue their relationship from the moment of lost time in which they’d abandoned it. “Well hey, I should probably leave you to it,” the former district commander said, moving for the door.

“Pontius!” Severo stopped him. The knight immediately realized he sounded a bit more desperate than he’d intended, but at least his father turned back. “Just…take care of yourself, all right?”

His father beamed. “You too, kid.”

“Maybe when this is all over…”

“Yeah…tell you what, you complete those Seven Trials, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Deal,” the boy grinned.

He threw up a psychic wall to render himself invisible from his father’s field of vision, though stayed just long enough to watch the man leave. Pontius had earned one final good memory of his son. That smile, Severo knew, would carry him through and become a source of refuge, of true belief that the prayer amulet could never have provided. For gone, now, was the pervasive sense of gravity in the knight’s chest. He surveyed the room one final time, secure in the knowledge of what to do next.

“Don’t worry, Igor,” he whispered. “It’s almost time to rest.”

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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 14

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Max asked.

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

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

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

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

“That’s where Constance comes in-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me, sir?”

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

“Might I buy a moment of your time?”

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

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

“I’m sorry, who the hell are you?”

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

“Max Ferrier,” the elder replied.

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

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 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 7

“Jesus Christ Pontius, what the hell happened out there?” the general asked. He jammed the cork back in once he’d filled his glass to the brim, taking a rather liberal sip.

“Nice Biblical irony there,” Pontius smirked. “But you already heard it-”

“The full version of events. The one you didn’t fabricate in front of the boys just now, because clearly they know, and certainly I do, that you’re a stinking drunk. You don’t fool me, Commander. I’m sure their testimony would corroborate that. Now what the devil happened?”

“Last I recall looking at the clock on my desk, it was ten minutes to eight,” Pontius explained. “All was quiet on the wall. Nice breeze. I stepped out of my office…heh…bottle in my hand. Tripped and stumbled, knocking out a street lantern. Third shift boys finished their patrol for the night. I went back inside.”

“And?”

“Pascal had to wake me up.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!”

“Can I really help it if it’s a boring job?”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass how boring it is! Do you have any idea why we called you back as District Commander in the first place?! It’s so these sorry young children can learn some goddamn respect for their jobs from a seasoned war veteran like yourself, who in my opinion is the best man to ever have donned the Dispatcher’s uniform!”

“Spare me the showers of praise,” Pontius said, swiping the bottle of brandy off the man’s desk to refill a metal flask he’d dug out of his coat pocket. “We all know that title belongs to your friend, Marco Corcini.” Rodin took back the bottle and smacked the flask out of his hand.

“How dare you! After all the strings I’ve pulled for you over the years to get you to the position you are now? I should think a man of your stature would be more appreciative!”

“I never asked for it. Besides, killing off orphaned children isn’t my idea of what constitutes a promotion.”

“Come now, you know how this city works, Pontius,” the general said. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the front edge of his desk. “The Dispatchers must keep the capital safe from not only the unseen forces which plague our world, but also those who travel by night slitting the throats of the innocent upper classes of our fine society. Our very principles are at stake-”

“Principles?” the commander chuckled, sinking back into one of the two leather chairs in front of his desk. “This city has had none ever since DuPont’s exile, and by the way, if murder is on your list of principles, I could just as well question your ability to serve as General.”

Rodin smirked. “So those three deaths which occurred under your watch last night don’t count as murder-”

“Three?” Pontius breathed. The flashes of memory were beginning to stabilize now, and every time a split second of clarity came, the spike of pain hammered through his skull even harder. Then he remembered. “It’s my understanding that at least one of those was in the pursuit of proper protocol…how did you know about the others?”

“According to Antoine and Gabriel, you kept muttering to the hospital staff about erasing the face of a young boy, then destroying the heart of another. They’d have thought you crazy, had they not discovered two bodies. One with his face blasted off, the other through the heart two blocks over shortly from where you fell. Captain Georges was no doubt a major loss for your department, but as for the two you murdered in cold blood, one of whom I understand was a resident of Barreau Orphanage…we shall need an alibi for you, my friend.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Pontius was incredulous. “I’m an adult. I’ll take responsibility for my own blunders.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. This is bigger than either of us and you know it. The reputation of the entire Dispatchers force is at stake, and I won’t have our most valuable veteran disgracing us all on the eve of the mayor’s welcome gala.”

“Have to say I’m surprised at you, General,” the commander said, grabbing a cigar from the open box on Rodin’s desk. “They’d love your brand of corrupt, wrinkled ass in Parliament.”

“Well somebody’s got to look out for you. So here’s how this is going to go.” The man lit a match and leaned forward to light his cigar. “Our official story will dictate that Lieutenant Mikael Lorraine was killed in the course of duty as he bravely fought off the invading Outlanders. I’ll see to it that the rest of his squad receives immediate promotions and pay increases as incentive for keeping quiet. As for Quentin Vaugrenard, any official documents bearing his name are to be seized and destroyed. He was an Outlander, his brand mark will tell the city papers all they need to know.”

“Christ, you know how to lay on the sauce.”

“And as for you, my old friend, I should hope this never happens again.”

“I promise I’ll be a good boy from now on,” Pontius smirked. “After one more.” He got up and reached for the man’s glass of brandy, but Rodin quickly blocked him. Good reflexes for a bloated old codger.

“I’m placing you on administrative leave effective immediately. For God’s sake Pontius, get yourself together!”

“Yes sir,” the commander saluted. “Oh, by the way, don’t bother yourself with the paperwork. I quit.” With that, he tore the silver badge from the right lapel of his trench coat and tossed it onto the man’s desk with a rather satisfying thunk. It had been a long night of hell, and far too long of a morning. He’d had enough of the sickening corporate farce ever since DuPont’s exile, and it was high time for a change. It was also time he stopped drinking. Somehow, he would have to atone for his sins. Somehow, he had to rediscover the vigilant hero within himself that once led protests against the Dalishkova so many years ago in Helias. He had to make things right again. He had to find his son. Even if he failed, it was the only way to honor Pascal. Quitting the force was a start. The veteran made his way to the door.

“You will of course return your phase unit and the rest of your gear!” Rodin bellowed.

“No I won’t,” Pontius grinned, reaching for the knob. “Guess you’ll just have to bend me over your knee and spank me. Have a nice life. Oh, and don’t expect my vote in the upcoming elections.”

It felt good to finally slam that door behind him. It felt even better to lumber down that hallway in full confidence, knowing he was retired with benefits that could never be axed. He had all the time he would ever need, and more. As he rounded the corner to the reception desk, the young blonde secretary gasped in disapproval. He had forgotten the cigar was still in his hand. A trail of ash extended down the long hallway behind him.

“Sir,” she said with a patronizing smile, “I do appreciate your service to our city, but you can’t be smoking that in here. Now if you’d please kindly-” He ashed on her stack of papers, prompting her to shriek and pat them down furiously with her cap, disheveling her hair in the process. “Honestly, what the hell is wrong with you?!” she yelled.

But Pontius was already halfway to the door, amused at the fact that several Dispatchers gathered near the entrance seemed to be viewing her with visible disdain for insulting a decorated war hero. For them, it was as if she had disrespected the pope. The district commander gave them all a curt nod, which they returned before he stepped through the revolving door and out onto the street as a free man.

It was rush hour in the Metropoliès. No matter where Pontius turned his gaze, the bustling crowds, the bells of streetcars, and the overwhelming honking of horns awaited. He felt trapped in an ocean of sound. His head swam. His stomach turned. Then a sudden sharp pain ripped through his skull again from back to front, conjuring flashbacks of the previous night, and that one elusive figure he just couldn’t seem to shake from his memory.

“Severo,” he breathed. “Where are you?”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 5

Once all the yelling had stopped, the dust settled, and the air again grew quiet—save for the occasional whimper—the black market dealer’s boys were knelt in a semicircle behind him with knives held to their throats, pistols to back of their heads. Max didn’t dare poke his head out until he heard shuffling footsteps enter the room from afar, yet even then he stayed low. That’s when his heart sunk. He knew that sauntering gait well from his time in the villa yesterday. It was the stride of a boy small in stature with an ego a hundred times the size of his tiny body, a leader who caused chaos and bloodshed wherever he went. It was the stride of a thirteen year-old murderer with yellow, decaying teeth. It was the stride of a child who greeted everyone from allies to enemies with—

“Hello, chickens!” Igor. The scrappy leader of the Outlanders wiped his brow, taking a long whiff of the stale air that was only made more stale by his presence. “I love what you’ve done with the place since we left, Mordechai. Ah, smells like…old paint, sawdust, blood, and boy sweat. The latter two really aren’t much of a surprise,” he grinned. “You always did smell like a rapist, no offense. It’s a scent that just clings to you wherever you go. Not very flattering.”

“What the hell are you doing here?!” Mordechai hissed, cradling his arm the way mothers cradle their infants.

“Securing new investments,” Igor said, circling him. “But every now and then, I find myself taking a little stroll down memory lane just to keep me fresh.” He leaned in close and began rummaging through the man’s pockets until he found his metal cigarette case and a pack of matches. He removed one to light and tossed the container aside in a puddle. “You and I used to have so much fun before the exile, remember? Every night, cluck, cluck, cluck!” His voice broke as he chuckled and thrust his pelvis. “No? You don’t remember?”

“Not that I can recall.”

“Don’t be a stupid chicken, of course you do. You used to slither into my bed every night,” Igor laughed as he sauntered around the prostrate man, blowing smoke rings in the air. “Used to jam your filthy chicken up my arse,” he emphasized, shoving his little fist hard against Mordechai’s ass crack. The man scowled at him. “Ha! You used to play dumb with the other boys. Pretend you hated me or some shit. But you loved me, didn’t you? It’s all right. You can say it.” Igor’s expression darkened as he reached for the knife still stuck in the man’s arm and forcibly tore it out. Blood briefly squirted out from the wound, spraying the young Outlander’s face.

“GAAAHHH! AAHHHH FUCK!” Mordechai shouted, but he shut up quick as the boy yanked the back of his hair and pointed that knife blade in his face.

“Now if you don’t stay quiet, I’m going to have to cut out your pretty little tongue. I’m telling a story here, so you’d best shut up. Matter of fact, that was always your problem, you never could shut up until I stole your gang out from under you,” the boy said, ashing his cigarette over the man’s head. “Which I’m about to do again.”

Max shuddered and turned to Olivier, conflicted once again. Now that he realized the Outlanders had been here all this time, questions were flooding his mind as to what exactly was going on. Quentin hadn’t even been dead for twenty-four hours yet. Too many details of his departure remained to be discovered. The elder began to wonder if perhaps the Outlanders were more trustworthy than he’d previously given them credit for. Ruthless as their methods were, they didn’t seem to have killed anyone in Cavarice yet, beyond a few Dispatchers. And Igor had been willing to sacrifice enough of his own to breach the wall. Beyond exacting petty revenge, there had to be some greater purpose. New investments. Speaking of which, the elder had almost forgotten they still owed Igor parts from yesterday. Oh no…

“What’s going on?” Max whispered.

“Mordechai used to run a street gang that Igor joined once he got kicked out of Rothreau Orphanage in the northern districts,” Olivier explained as they watch his leader pacing around. “Igor made friends with Abigail, the only girl of the group, and Mordechai didn’t like it. He beat him and left him for dead. Abby went looking for him and-”

“I hear chickens squawking!” Igor turned to glare angrily at the two culprits. A hearty laugh escaped his lungs when his eyes fell on the young leader of the Barreau boys. “Well, well, Max Ferrier! Fancy seeing you here.”

A look of shock came over Mordechai’s face. “You know him?!”

“Of course I know him!” the Outlander chuckled. “Maxy and I do business together. How else do you think he gets his little talons on Dispatcher parts? But I see you do business with him too.” Igor sheathed his jagged knife back in the twine that served as his belt and stepped over to have a closer look at the elder and his companions. All but Olivier backed away as he blew smoke in their faces. If Max could have sunk through the wall to get away from that stench and menacing smile, he would have. “I see Olivier was gagged. What was the plan, eh, Ferrier? Were you going to sell him off to this leech?”

“Of course not-”

“Because he is a leech, you know!” Igor said loudly, turning back to Mordechai. “At least chickens know their place. But leeches, they suck. They suck and they suck, and they leave you all dry! Just like a corpse in the hot desert sun. Should have been you who got exiled, mate.”

“Shut the hell up!” Mordechai bellowed. “I took care of your ungrateful ass.”

“Yeah, until I became friends with your girl. Then you got rid of her too.”

“You leave Abigail out of this!”

“What did you ever do to Abby, anyway?”

“I sent her away,” Mordechai muttered. “Last I heard, she got picked up by a family.”

“Family, eh? No orphan who’s thrown to the curb in Viktorium gets picked up by anyone,” Igor laughed, tossing his cigarette down. “But lucky for the rest of your chickens here, I so happen to be in dire need of fresh recruits. We lost some good people at the wall.”

“You’re not touching my boys!” Mordechai roared.

“I’ll touch whatever I like and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, chicken,” the scrappy child grinned, thrusting a hand at the man’s crotch to give his genitals a tight squeeze. “Ah, memories…I could cut this off right now and cook it, you know. That’s the only way it’s going back down my throat. Or I could feed it to you right before I watch you die. What say you, Ferrier?” Igor asked, twirling his knife in anticipation. Max held his tongue.

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“You’re right, why waste time?” The boy took a step back and slashed hard through Mordechai’s tender neck, releasing a fountain of blood that spewed down the length of his body. Horrible gurgling sounds filled the air. The man’s eyes bulged and he lurched forward onto his knees, frantically grasping at the gaping wound as if pressure might stop it. He then slumped to his elbows and began crawling like an animal, aimless and still gagging out a crimson trail like a broken faucet until at last he lost consciousness and dropped over, dead. A chorus of gasps escaped Mordechai’s followers as he met his end.

Max’s heart was pounding. This was the second death he’d witnessed at the hands of the Outlanders. He glanced over at Camilo, who looked about to vomit. Aaron rocked passively back and forth to ward off the nausea while Matthieu took shallow, labored breaths. The elder’s eyes fell to the pile of blood-soaked money scattered about their cache of Dispatcher parts. For once, he hadn’t the faintest clue what to do. He felt too paralyzed to move. No one knew what was going to happen next.

“Well now that that’s over,” Igor sighed and knelt down to pick up the dead man’s whip. He cracked it out of curiosity, but came up short and snapped himself in the face. “Ouch!” he cried, tonguing his split lip. But a wide grin spread on his face at the taste of blood. He gazed back on his newest minions now with twisted pleasure. “Listen up, you ugly chickens! You’ve all got knives at your throats, yeah? So unless you want the floor in front of you painted red like your stupid snake of a comrade over there, this is how it’s going to be. You answer to me now, and only me. Not anyone I make deals with, not any of your fellow Outlanders. Fuck me over and I’ll kill you. Stay loyal, I take care of you. Any questions?”

“Do we have to fight?” asked the broken ten year-old huddled in a corner behind Max. The young elder had almost forgotten about him.

“Of course you have to fight, are you fucking stupid?” Igor laughed. “Probably why you got beat up in the first place. What use do I have for you? Matter of fact, what use do I have for any of you?” He turned back to face the rest of them with incredulity. “You’re all twelve or under, aside from two of you. I ought to put the lot of you out of your misery right now.” More gasps came from Mordechai’s former gang.

“You’re only thirteen, and Olivier is twelve,” Max pointed out.

“I didn’t ask for your input, Ferrier!” Igor hissed. “I decide what to do with my own gang. You can take your Dispatcher parts and the money along with that mess of a child and run back home to your cushy orphanage like you always do. This is my turf now. I don’t want you here.”

Max was aghast. “But we still owe you, you know. From yesterday. W-we could split the parts and the money, and you could have more than your eighty percent-”

“Forget it. I have a plan for conquering this city, and it doesn’t involve handouts. Don’t worry, I’ll take what I want from you in due time, chicken,” the leader grinned. “Now get the hell out so I can properly initiate my new boys.”

Max turned to Olivier, concerned at what Igor was planning. He felt strange showing genuine concern to the boy; after all, he had been an Outlander for some time and the elder had thought nothing of it. Still, they were in the city now, and it was unclear what tactics his leader had in mind, or how the Outlanders’ approach to survival would differ from desert life.

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Fine,” the boy assured him, resting his elbows on his knees. “Don’t worry, the rest of them will be fine too, but they’ll still have to fight. Prove their worth by going after a Dispatcher. We’ll all be there to help them though. It’s a game, really. We take care of our own.”

“And I thought you were second-in-command. What happened?”

“Igor demoted me to bait boy for putting up a fight over my cave drawings.”

“Cave drawings? Where’s there a cave?”

“Under the vill-….shit, you weren’t supposed to know that,” the boy sighed.

“It’s fine,” Max smirked. “I wondered how you all survived out there for so long.”

“Quentin helped us a lot.”

“Quentin?! What do you-”

“Later,” the boy cut him off. “You have to go.”

“Right,” the elder nodded. “By the way, sorry about earlier. You’re not a total piece of shit after all.”

Olivier beamed. Max and his group proceeded to gather up the blood-stained money and Dispatcher parts, shoving them back into the potato sacks as fast as they could. Once they were done, Matthieu and Aaron helped the beaten ten year-old to his feet and set each of his arms around their shoulders to carry him out. Max smirked. They would need that spare mattress Bernard suggested after all. By the time the five of them left the building, Igor was already sizing up his newest recruits and pairing them off into fighting teams. It was all rather strange and only left the elder with more questions than answers.

Who was Abigail? Was she Igor’s real motive for coming back to kill Mordechai? If so, why had he not done it before the exile? What were the ‘new investments’ he spoke of, if not Dispatcher parts? Wouldn’t he need them, along with Mordechai’s money to survive? It was difficult to follow the boy’s decisions. His mind was too fragmented, and that’s what made him dangerous. But for what it was worth, Max was beginning to feel he could at least trust the rest of the Outlanders. Their leader, not so much. If I could just rally them somehow, we’d have more than enough people to go against Lucien, if it ever comes to that. Of course he hoped it never would.

“So what did you make of all that?” Matthieu inquired, as they crossed the abandoned courtyard back to the street. “You would think he’d want the money at the very least.”

“I don’t know, but I get the feeling we’re in way over our heads.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 3

The morning was dreary and cold. Max had been sitting on the radiator in front of his windowsill for almost an hour now to warm up, clad in only a ragged pair of dark brown trousers. It was almost time to wake the boys. He let out a yawn, fighting fatigue as he drew his knees up to his chest. The shift of his weight set off an odd sensation down below. For a moment, he’d forgotten why he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“Laundry day,” he sighed. The young elder had hoped to put off thinking on the events of the previous day until at least after breakfast, but the absence of undergarments triggered a sudden flashback in his mind. “Captain Georges…” They had spent all of yesterday morning at the Outlanders’ villa waiting to trap a squad of Dispatchers and steal their equipment. The plan had gone off mostly without a hitch, until Igor decided to take Georges hostage. The rest was a blur, up until the attack on the wall last night.

“Quentin,” Max whimpered. The boy who had been their only connection to the Outlanders gang. The scrappy drifter he had worked so hard to turn around from the first day he had arrived at Barreau Orphanage several months ago. The sensitive soul with auburn hair and a heart of gold who had become like a younger brother to Max. He had died with the Outlanders, undignified, like a piece of gutter trash. But why? You said you needed to tell me something when the time was right. What was it?

Max gazed back on his tiny flat. To the bed, the creaky floorboards, the trap door and the hidden crawl space beneath it. Even the rug was still out of place from when the boy had thrown it aside, convinced that the Dispatchers were coming for him. Of course they had. And then that afternoon when Max returned, he had looked scared. No, that wasn’t the right word. Petrified. Yes. Quentin was right petrified out of his wits, even as he’d sat here in the very spot where the elder was now sitting, spreading out his tiny fingers to search for a sense of warmth that poor child would never feel again.

Max sniffed and drew his knees up closer to cry. The thin pipes of the radiator caught his bony rear instead, causing him to lose balance and slip against the window.

“No!” he cried out. Too late. One involuntary swipe of his hand against the glass, and half the messages they had scrawled to each other in the condensation the previous day were decimated. Ah well. No matter. Wouldn’t have lasted anyway, and yet still a tightness of something unresolved was building in the young elder’s chest. Quentin would not have just run off without leaving behind some sort of clue. If it were that important, he would have found a way. A sudden knock at the door tore Max from his thoughts.

“Come in,” the elder said, wiping his face. He didn’t know who it was, but he figured they couldn’t make things much worse.

“It’s just me.” Bernard entered, closing the door behind him. Max’s newest second-in-command was clad in little more for laundry day, save for a greasy undershirt. He seemed to be holding a collection of telegrams in hand. “Feel like talking?”

“It’s funny,” Max said. “Yesterday, I sat in this very spot and asked Quentin the same. He didn’t want to. But we wrote all this in the window. He said there was something he had to tell me. I keep going over it again and again in my head, looking for some clue as to what it might have been. Still nothing.”

“Whatever it was, I’m sure we’ll find out in time. The voices of the dead scream loudest in Viktorium, after all.”

“Let’s hope the living can still hear them,” Max sighed, plopping down off the radiator. He looked back on the window. The many fingerprints and curved lines strewn about the pane—those that had survived his hand, anyway—looked to him like the rivers on a map. Never still. Strange, that those words should return to him just now. He recalled the voice of an old woman having spoken them long ago. A kind voice, full of love. There were candles, words on a page…that’s it. She had read to him. “Never still,” he said aloud.

“What?” Bernard appeared confused.

“Something from the past,” Max clarified. “Back before I came to Viktorium, this older orphan boy took care of me. But he was always getting us into trouble. The last house we lived in, there was an old woman who used to read to me every night when everyone else had gone to bed. The squiggles on the window here reminded me of rivers. A story with rivers…‘the river is never still’, she said. ‘The tide is always constant, shifting. It shapes everything in its wake, creating puzzle pieces that fit together if only you step back.”

“Think we should retrace our steps from yesterday?”

“Might be worth a go.” Max gestured to the crumpled rug on the floor. “I can’t bring myself to move anything. Doesn’t feel right. Like a crime scene or something. I’d hate to think he died in vain.”

“He knew we loved him, Max,” Bernard put an arm around him. “And if there is an afterlife even after this…perhaps we’ll see him again.”

Max let out a chuckle.

“What’s funny?”

“You remember when he first came to the orphanage?”

“Oh god,” Bernard laughed. “How could I forget? He stole the blanket right off of Tomas in the middle of the night because his wasn’t big enough.”

“And the tug of war woke everyone up, remember?”

“He had lice, so we had to get rid of the blanket anyway.”

“Took him outside, hosed him off naked in the alley!” Max snickered. “The look on his face, he was so mad and kept trying to go back for the blanket even after we burned it. And then,” the elder gasped hysterically, “Tomas came out with the phase unit to delouse him-”

“He pissed on him and got electrocuted, and the two chased each other around the entire house!” Bernard laughed.

“He was always stealing my things when he got angry at me, too,” Max grinned. “My old silver watch went missing one morning, and I found all the pieces strewn in a trail leading to the closet in the office. All but the frame. Caught him chewing on the clock face! I didn’t know what to say, so I said…‘Do you know what time it is?’”

“You didn’t!”

“He said ‘break fast!’ and ran out the back door.”

“I never heard that one!” Bernard laughed. After some time, the two elders managed to catch their breath and settle down. Max stepped over to his dresser and threw on the last ragged shirt he had stuffed in the bottom drawer. Much as he enjoyed reminiscing about Quentin, there was much work ahead for the day, and still too many unsolved questions. None of them made any sense no matter how far back he could think.

“At least now we know the Outlanders are up to something bigger than just getting back to the city and scaring the shit out of everyone,” Max said. “Igor wouldn’t sacrifice that many of his minions if he didn’t think it was worth it. Whatever they’re here for, it’s worth dying over…anyway, what mail did we get?”

“Urgent telegram this morning,” Bernard said, handing him the letters.

“La Cour,” Max sighed, looking over the return address. “Probably about the gala. Great.” The elder tore open the envelope and sat down on his bed to read it. “I’ll need you to watch the boys tonight. Private meeting at Morcourt.”

Bernard chuckled. “The press will be crawling all over Centre Square after last night. Good luck getting to his doorstep.”

“Yeah. I’ll try to arrive by sundown.”

“Anything else you need?”

“Oh, goddamn it!” Max bit his lip and scrambled to the dressed to check his pocket watch. He hated to ask any more favors, but he’d almost forgotten. “You think you could take care of laundry shift in the meantime? I have to meet with Mordechai before breakfast to sell some of the parts from yesterday.”

He cringed as he spoke that last line. Mordechai, or ‘Papa Mordechai’ as he so oft insisted to be called, was a twenty-something orphanage reject and gang leader who surrounded himself with an army of naive young boys who were too weak to fend for themselves. Many of those under his watch could be seen sporting nasty bruises and lacerations, even fractures that hadn’t healed properly from the initiation process—Mordechai was a sadist who would force new members to fight one another for his own sick entertainment. Still, he offered protection from Dispatchers who would have otherwise exiled them to the desert. It was unfortunate he’d gotten to them before Max had.

“No problem,” Bernard assured the elder with a pat on the shoulder.

“You’re the best.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Yes…and no,” Max sighed. “Truthfully, I’d love to take in most of the boys he abuses, but you know how that goes.”

“Should I bring out the extra mattresses in case you manage to save a few?”

“Not necessary,” Max shook his head. “I’d rather just get this over with and try not to think about it. Besides, we don’t have time. It’s almost seven. Wake the boys, gather up the laundry, and take them to the mat. I’ll bring the oldest along with me and meet you for breakfast at the mess hall later…you know the drill.”

“Of course.”

As the two exited the bedroom, the elder still couldn’t shake the nervous feeling in his gut. It continued to grow, consuming what little resolve he had left over from the previous day. Meeting with Mordechai, he knew, would use up the last of it. He glanced back at the fading condensation on the window pane and the writing still visible from yesterday; the many squiggled lines like rivers, the words like passing ships. He looked, too, at his accidental hand prints which now dominated the frame. It seemed a storm was brewing, and had been for some time.

Never still, he thought to himself again. Those pieces fit together somehow. He wasn’t about to give up.

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