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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Night of the Wolf – Part 2

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

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

“Mum, I’m scared!” the boy whimpered.

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

“You’re scared too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“Yes you are!”

“Boys, stop it!” their mother scolded.

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

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

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

“Mum…what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

“Darling, please-”

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

“Lucien!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?” she whispered.

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

“LOOK OUT!”

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

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

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

“But Mum-”

“I love you, go, GO!”

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

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

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

The mother’s heart thudded deep in her chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck off!” the woman spat.

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

“Don’t you dare touch-”

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

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

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

“You son of a bitch!”

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

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

“No,” Constance whimpered in defeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So why murder my son?”

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

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

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

“What are you suggesting?”

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

“Charles founded this place,” Constance reminded him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mum…where did the rest of me go?”

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

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

“Who? Who wasn’t there?”

“My brother,” the boy whimpered.

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

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

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

Those ice cold, false-fleshed hands…

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House of Rats – Part 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. The article looked interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“West Central.”

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

“Trouble?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

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

“I’m Gretel.”

“Nice to meet you, Gretel.”

“How about you, where are you headed?”

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

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

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

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

“What do the Dalishkova believe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then what?!”

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

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

“Holy shi-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the-”

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

“You’re not an anomaly.”

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

“Gretel.”

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

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

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

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

“What the hell are you?”

“I’m the Master of Lightning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You started this fight.”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

Gretel gasped. “How is that possible?”

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

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

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

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

“What frequency?”

“705 Hertz.”

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

“Deal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 20

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

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

“IGOR!” the man roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t even matter now…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Yes sir?”

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

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

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

“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”

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

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

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

“I’m sure we will,” Gabriel muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Severo!” the man shouted. “Sev!”

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

“Get your hands off of me!”

“Sir, please listen-”

“That’s my son, you hear me? Sev!”

“The Outlanders are getting away!”

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

“Sir-”

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

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

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

Then everything went black.

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House of Rats – Part 19

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

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

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

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

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

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

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

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

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Igor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

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

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

“Cluck cluck!”

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

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

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

_______________________

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

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

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

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you all know those verses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

“But-”

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

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

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

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

“I won’t ask again.”

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

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

“On what charges?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Godspeed.”

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

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

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

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