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 10

“Igor!” the group of Outlanders shrieked. Severo was met with a cacophony of frightened voices that echoed off the walls and reverberated around the concrete columns of the safe house. He shook his head in an attempt to reorient his vision. His body ached and his head throbbed. Everything was brighter on this side. Brighter, blurry, and full of color, as if he’d been staring into the sun for too long. Once he came to, he caught sight of Igor sprawled out unconscious on the floor with his nose bleeding.

“My god,” he whispered. “What have I done?”

“It’s him, it’s him!” one of the girls shouted, pointing accusingly at the young knight. “Didn’t you all see? His eyes turned white and Igor fainted. He’s a bloody witch! You will answer for this!” The child charged at him, but Olivier moved to block her path.

“He is not a witch!” the boy snapped. “If anything, he saved Igor when I almost took his life the other night at the villa. And witches, really? In Viktorium? You need to stop reading those ridiculous serials.” He snatched a newspaper she was clutching in her hand and tossed it on the floor. “He’s Dalishkova. Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Severo swallowed. This was bad. Very bad.

“You’re what?!” Lucien exclaimed. “So that’s why you’ve been sitting on the floor meditating all this time. I swear to god, you little shit!” he stormed over, grabbing the knight by his lapels, “if you’ve done ANYTHING-”

“Get off of me, Lucien!” Severo spat through clenched teeth. “I have no quarrel with you.”

“Oh, but you don’t understand. Your kind were kicked out of Cavarice for a reason, and if I have to deal with an uprising on my hands once I reclaim my rightful destiny, I’ll have your head planted on a spire so high, the whole of Helias will see it!”

“Fine! If and when you reclaim your rightful throne, I will bow my head and you can sever it from my body, but until then, I need Igor alive just as you do! Now shut up and bring him to me.”

Lucien let go and backed away in fury. Severo felt his heart thud in his chest much faster than it ever had. What had happened to the leader of the Outlanders? His mind was still adjusting from the shock of returning to such a volatile environment. None of it made any sense. If where he’d been was a physical manifestation of Igor’s mind, then how had the Dalishkova managed to tap in? Even more curious…who was the boy who had shot arrows at him just before he left? But now was not the time to dwell on such things. He had to assess Igor to be sure he was all right.

Olivier grabbed the boy’s legs while Lucien took hold of his shoulders, and the two placed the young gang leader on the floor in front of Severo. The knight took a deep breath and sighed. Without his prayer amulet, he had no idea if there was even a point to reciting what prayers he knew. In addition, he could not recall all of them. His prayer book, too, he had left with Emilie back in the caves with the Outlanders that were loyal to her. He hoped just as well that she was surviving on her own, and that the boys under her were earning their keep.

“Right,” the boy sighed again. He placed his hands on either side of Igor’s head and closed his eyes to begin the incantation. His focus was off on the first attempt, and he forgot at least an entire phrase. Steady, he told himself. He tried again. Yet before he could speak a word, the young leader’s eyes fluttered open and he arched his back to sit up, coughing and gagging for air. He regained his composure several moments later as Severo continued to pray over him. The rest of the Outlanders gathered anxiously around, eager to make certain their leader was all right. Lucien gave the boy a few pats on the back to help clear his chest. Igor spat a thick mixture of blood and mucus across the dusty wooden floor, then shuffled to his feet. At last, the familiar personality they all loved to hate had returned.

“The fuck are you chickens all staring at?!” he snapped.

“You fainted,” Lucien replied. “Are you quite sure you’re all right? Or do I have to have someone else carry out your-”

“Want to lose your cock?!” Igor rasped, yanking him by the neck of his shirt. “You don’t need that to lead, chicken. I’m living proof, and I certainly don’t need mine to cut your dirty throat or anyone else’s. But if you fancy having all the meat sliced from that tender little bone of yours,” the boy grinned, whipping out his knife and poking a hole in the thigh of Lucien’s trousers. The elder yelped and tried to pull away, but Igor quickly positioned a foot behind his heel and shoved him to the floor. “That’s what I thought. Now bugger off.”

As the scrappy boy turned and paced across the room to take refuge and further collect himself, Severo rose to feet. Now was the perfect opportunity to take his leave and deliver Max’s letter to the post office uptown. If anything, the situation he’d been presented with had just grown far more urgent. Between Igor’s fainting spell and the visit he had received from the Dalishkova, not to mention Lucien discovering his true identity, the young knight’s safety would soon be in jeopardy. Slipping quietly past the throng of Outlanders, Severo made way for the stairwell.

“And just where do you think you’re sneaking off to?” Igor asked.

“Short stroll,” the knight breathed. “I need some fresh air.”

“Don’t wander too far.”

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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 4

Mordechai’s chosen meeting place was an abandoned three-story warehouse approximately five blocks south of Barreau Orphanage. Under normal circumstances, Max would have been reluctant to be seen carrying several potato sacks worth of parts down the vacant streets. Fortunately, another laundromat was still in operation not far from the building, so if they ran into any Dispatchers along the way, no one would be any the wiser as to their contents.

He had brought what was left of the eldest boys with him; Matthieu, Aaron, and Camilo, ranging in age from thirteen to fifteen. Each had witnessed their fair share of blood and carnage over the past several months, but the young leader was now much more concerned that their pitiful group only amounted to four in total. The rest of those worth their salt had left with Lucien the previous night. Those who hadn’t were with Bernard, as they were all under twelve. Considering that this was also the first black market deal which Max was carrying out himself, it only further hammered home the point that Lucien was, in fact, a valuable asset without whom Barreau Orphanage might not survive.

“Lousy prick,” the elder muttered, feeling the weight of the parts dig into his back as they rounded the last corner.

“I know, I can’t stand Mordechai either,” Aaron sighed.

Max smirked. “I wasn’t talking about him. This would have been so much easier with Lucien. But no, he had to go and fuck everything up,” the elder panted. “Now there’s four of us, and god knows how many boys Mordechai has polishing his shoes. I just hope we get out alive. And with our genitals intact.”

“Aren’t most of them younger than us?” Camilo pointed out.

“Yeah, but they’re also as dangerous as the Outlanders if you let them get too close, so try to stay a few steps behind me.”

“Yes sir.”

The warehouse lay just ahead on the next block to their right, a crumbling red brick structure surrounded by a ten-foot wall with an iron gate at the entrance. The signage overhead, half-destroyed but still legible, was the only indicator of the business that once existed on this dilapidated lot: ZUVIBAN CLOCKWORKS. In its heyday, it had been a subsidiary of DuPont Steamworks & Co., manufacturing the internal clocks which kept Cavarice running, from the trains and automated streetcars to the subways and buses, as well as such things as streetlamps and traffic lights. But like every other business in the western districts following DuPont’s exile, it had been scrapped in favor of more profitable ventures closer to the Metropoliès.

Max surveyed the street to be sure no one was watching them before slipping through the gate with his group. It had been secured with a chain, but there was enough slack for anyone to maneuver their way in. The complex looked much worse from the inside. Crumbling stone, glass, and rusted metal scraps of clock parts lined the entire length of the overgrown courtyard from end to end. Weeds were reclaiming the sidewalk. Burnt rags that were once company uniforms lay half-buried in the mud, along with broken pocket watches and the occasional name tag. The irony of it was certainly not lost on the Barreau boys. Time had stopped here long ago.

As the group proceeded up the front steps of the stone walkway, Max could already hear raucous shouting and laughter coming from inside the building. A shudder went down his spine. He immediately backed against the wall and gestured for the others to stay out of sight behind him until the cacophony died down. All went quiet for a short time. For several seconds, the elder gazed back over the empty courtyard, solemn and desolate. He watched. He waited. Then came a series of audible gasps and groans, followed by a horrible wet cracking sound. Max broke into a cold sweat.

“He’s making them fight,” the boy trembled. He reached in his pocket and flipped open his watch. “Four minutes to eight. What do you guys think, should we break them up with a few warning shots?”

“I thought you said they outnumber us,” Matthieu said. “You really want to piss off Mordechai?”

“It’s not like he ever risks his neck for Dispatcher parts. The man’s a bloody coward of a middleman who hides behind an army of helpless children that don’t know any better. They have every reason to leave. Maybe if they see us refusing to take his shit for once, it’ll give them the proper push,” the elder said, rummaging through his sack to dig out a phase unit. “Besides, I’m tired of walking in to see children knocked unconscious.”

“You’re the one in charge,” Aaron shrugged. “You don’t answer to us.”

“Maybe so, but I feel I should. After all, who does Mordechai answer to?” Max finished strapping on the phase unit, only to hear the door suddenly creak open behind him. A scrappy, familiar-looking boy of about twelve poked his head out.

“I don’t know,” the child grinned, “who does Mordechai answer to?”

“Olivier!” Igor’s second-in-command. The young elder didn’t stop to think. He lunged forward and seized the boy, covering his mouth so he couldn’t scream, and whirled him back against the wall for questioning. “What the hell are you doing? Is Igor here?! Answer me, you shit!”

“That’s probably hard to do while you’re covering his mouth,” Camilo pointed out.

Max sighed and took a deep breath. “If I let go, you promise you’re not going to squeal?” Olivier nodded. The elder obliged, though kept him pinned against the wall of the alcove. “All right. Talk.”

“Maybe Igor is here, maybe he isn’t. Either way, do you honestly think you’d make it out of here alive with either of our gangs against you? Our combined numbers are about fifty to four. You don’t stand a chance, Max Ferrier.”

“Perhaps not. Doesn’t mean I’m scared to take a few of you with me,” the elder smirked, sparking a blue pulse in his palm aside the boy’s face. Olivier’s expression immediately shifted to one of pants-shitting terror. “As it so happens, I doubt I’ll piss off Mordechai when he sees I’ve got a lovely hostage for him.”

“Wait!” the boy protested. “I swear I know nothing, I came here on my own.”

“Bullshit!”

“Not all of us want to stay with the Outlanders, okay? Especially not after what Igor has done to some of us.”

“Well good luck with that. You’re inside city walls now, so if the Dispatchers catch you, you’re finished. And don’t expect me to take pity on you either. Quentin is dead. I have nothing to say to the Outlanders.”

“He’s dead?!” Olivier gasped.

“That’s news to you?”

“Everything h-happened so fast last night,” the boy sniffed, starting to cry. “I walked through the hole in the gate after everyone else had gone. Most of my friends were killed, I don’t r-really talk to the older boys,” he sobbed. “I’m all alone, I’m just looking for someone to stay with, I swear!”

A slight pain fluttered in Max’s chest as he gazed at the tearful boy. If Olivier’s story was indeed true, he couldn’t help but feel empathy. At the same time, the elder had come across his share of liars, and he knew younger children were particularly adept at turning on the waterworks to get what they wanted. It was a survival tactic they used well in rundown districts. But whether or not the boy was being honest with him didn’t matter. There was no time to deal with it now.

Max decided his initial course of action was best; taking Olivier hostage as a spy might impress Mordechai enough to end the gladiator match between his newest initiates. Perhaps he’d even give the Barreau boys a bigger cut of money for turning the boy over. At least Olivier would then have a home. He might get abused like the others of course, there was little doubt about that. But he was an Outlander. Max was fairly confident he would rise in the ranks on his own. Then again, that’s if Igor isn’t hiding just behind the door.

“Goddamn it, you are a genuine piece of shit,” the elder sighed, powering off the phase unit. “I have an idea, but you’re going to have to trust me and keep quiet. Don’t struggle or I’ll knock you out, understood?” Olivier nodded. Max reached down to his undershirt and proceeded to tear a long strip of fabric from off the bottom. He split it into two, rolling one into a ball which he then shoved in the boy’s mouth. He tied the other around his face in a makeshift gag and handed him over to Matthieu and Aaron.

“Think this will help?” Aaron asked.

“If Mordechai is as dumb as the former owners of the parts he’s buying. Matthieu, follow close behind me with Olivier. Aaron and Camilo, you’ll be the lookout behind us in case he’s planning an ambush. Let’s go.”

Max heaved the sack of parts back over his shoulder and powered the phase unit back on. He cautiously crept to the open door and peered inside. He looked to the right, then the left, and up the staircase. No one seemed to be hiding, so he gestured for the others to slip in with him. A sudden bang came from behind. Startled, the elder threw out his arm and almost fired a pulse straight at Camilo. The boy had leaned back to close the door, but did so a bit more forcefully than he’d intended. Max shot him a death glare instead before continuing on to the main floor of the abandoned structure.

Sounds of the fight could still be heard, closer now, along with the occasional cheer when a loud thump or crack kicked up dust from the aging floorboards. The old warehouse had a distinctive metallic smell to it which wasn’t entirely unpleasant, though it reminded Max of the taste of blood mixed with paint fumes and sawdust. He was sure that the latter two were leftover from the factory itself, though the former seemed to be a more recent addition. The elder plugged his nose and crouched low near an assortment of overturned tables and smashed wooden crates. He gestured for the others to follow him around a short maze of debris across the room. There, another scent greeted his nostrils. Sweat.

“Can you see anything?” Matthieu whispered.

“I think so.” Max poked his head over a table that was flipped on its side. Out on the center of the floor, a semicircle of young boys stood with excitement to watch the two newest initiates trade punches. The younger of the pair looked to be about ten, and was considerably more reluctant to be fighting than the toned teenager pummeling him. Cuts and abrasions covered his face and chest. His nose and mouth were bleeding, and he was missing several front teeth. One of his eyes was black and blue. Two of the fingers on his left hand were clearly broken. Yet no matter how much he cried and sobbed and shouted “please stop!” the relentless teen continued to beat him into a goddamn puree.

And looking on from the head of the semicircle audience was seated the dark-featured Mordechai, aged twenty-four, a sly grin plastered on his face. In one hand rested an open bottle of gin and in the other, a lion tamer’s whip. The teen fighting in the circle glanced back at him every few seconds, but each time, the man would crack his whip across the boy’s back as if he were a circus animal and shout in a drunken rage.

“Finish him Tiger, before I give you more stripes! What are you waiting for?! NOW!”

Max accidentally dialed his phase unit up to the highest setting as he scrambled to fire a pulse into the rafters. He wanted nothing more than to end this maniacal sadist right where he sat, but he knew the orphanage was at stake. If he had the chance later, he would surely come back to free these boys from the clutches of that vile snake. In fact he vowed it, but that also meant keeping the doors of the orphanage open, and unfortunately that venture would not be possible right now without Mordechai. What kind of name is that, anyhow?

The elder took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and fired a pulse at one of the large lights overhead. A loud blast of electricity shattered the glass into a million pieces. It rained down like diamonds on the gathering of boys and their smug leader, sending all but the pureed ten year-old scrambling for cover.

“WHO THE FUCK FIRED THAT?!” Mordechai raged.

“Sorry!” Max snapped, poking his head out from behind the table. “Just thought I should test this thing out before selling it to you. Make sure it’s in working order and all.” He and the rest of the group stepped over the debris to cover the poor young child still writhing half-naked on the floor. “I also wanted to remind you that we have a meeting right now, in case you forgot.”

“Oh, you’re funny, Ferrier!” the leader snarled. “Who’s the cute little koala you brought with you?”

“You mean…this adorable little present we’ve bound and gagged just for you?” Max smiled, even as he felt his skin crawl. He had long suspected the man was some sort of sexual deviant, though he’d seen no evidence as of yet. Mordechai licked his lips at the statement, and that was all he needed to know. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice him. He was lurking just outside-”

“How much do you want?” the man cut him off.

“Nothing extra. Provided we can trade him for your, uh…pureed little fellow on the floor here.”

“Forget it! These kids are my family. We take care of each other.”

“Yes I can see that, they’re all terrified of you. But see, this little one here, his name is Olivier,” Max grinned, grabbing the boy from Matthieu and shoving him forward. “And Olivier needs to be taught some manners. Do you know why?” The child wasn’t one to struggle much, but he did now, and Max only hoped it was because he was acting. He hoped, too, that he had a brand scar to show off for proof. To that end, the elder slipped a hand under the boy’s shirt to check. Sure enough, he felt it on the left side of his chest. “Olivier is an Outlander.”

“Really now,” Mordechai smirked, setting down his bottle of gin as the anxious children behind him looked on from the shadows. It was difficult to tell whether they were afraid of Max or whether they were afraid of any repercussions at the hands of their leader once the Barreau boys were out of sight. But much as the orphanage elder wished to save them all, his mind was only set on helping one—Olivier. He wasn’t about to leave this boy in that man’s clutches now. Not after what he’d seen today. A new plan had come to mind. Take this evil snake for all he’s worth.

“It’s true,” Max said. “See for yourself.” He reluctantly raised the child’s grimy undershirt to show off the brand scar.

“Yeah yeah, get your filthy hands off him-”

“Ah ah,” Max shoved him back to Matthieu, “not until you pay us for the parts.”

“How much you want me to pay for the parts of him?” Mordechai licked his lips again and wound the tamer’s whip tightly around each hand until his fingers turned purple. “I’d give you extra. Gladly. It wouldn’t be a problem. Wouldn’t be a problem at all,” the man grinned, pulling the whip taut. “Hell, for him, I might even give you an advance. Always wanted to teach an Outlander some manners.” A cacophony of scared whispers came from the shadows.

Inside, Max was seething with a rage he’d never felt before. Even Lucien hadn’t managed to strike such a nerve. This was new. It was an odd, unfamiliar, unsettling sensation deep in his bones that bordered on homicidal, and only one thought existed now that might calm him if he turned to it. Never still, he repeated to himself like a mantra. Never still. Never still. Breathe in, breathe out. Never kill. It wasn’t working. The rage remained.

“Dispatcher parts first!” the elder managed to spit. “We have plenty of them.” Matthieu, Aaron, and Camilo stepped forward to dump out their wares on the wooden floor, making sure to keep Olivier out of sight behind them. Max hoped that wasn’t a grave mistake, though it seemed to redirect Mordechai’s attention. Among the parts were two phase units (the third was on Max’s wrist), three utility belts, three watches, four spare batteries, three pairs of goggles, a canteen, two stun rods, two spare emitters, one trench coat, and a specialized custom compass for detecting anomalies outside of the normal frequency range.

“Oh, this is good,” Mordechai said, fiddling with the compass. “This is very good. I have to say, you continue to impress me, Ferrier. I don’t know how you do it.”

“I have my ways,” the elder said with a contemptuous smile.

“Oh ho ho, Maxy boy!” the snake sucked his teeth. “There may be time to teach you some manners yet. Here.” Reaching deep into the pockets of his black leather trench coat, Mordechai dug out a substantial assortment of large bills and placed them into Max’s hand. Some were Cavarice currency, others were Sereinnes Province. He also handed out some coins from Helias and Falvarre, even a few Francs. Naturally, this meant that Max would have to take the trouble of going all the way to the east end of the Metropoliès just to get the currency exchanged.

“What the hell is this?!” the elder frowned.

“Your payment,” Mordechai grinned. “Unless of course you take that phase unit off your wrist and give me your boy Olivier over there. I know you had no intention of doing it. But it’d make things a lot easier for you, really. Make up for your naughty little attitude.” The man released the whip from his tight grip, allowing the length of it to drag on the floor. “And for the record, I’m not stupid. I know how bad you need the money. I’m willing to take a loss on the Dispatcher parts for him.”

Max’s heart thundered in his chest as he glanced back at Olivier, who was visibly shaking and crying. Shaking, but also nodding, almost as if he could sense there was no other way out of this. If he didn’t give himself up, it was very likely that Mordechai would not let any of them go. Sure, they could grab up the phase units, but none of the boys with him now knew how to use them. They would be eating the leather of that whip before they so much as strapped the devices onto their fragile wrists. Damn it, I haven’t planned this far ahead yet!

“Come on, now. You’re not going to get a better deal,” Mordechai said.

The elder hesitated, despite the urgings of his group.

“Just let him go, Max,” Matthieu sighed. “He’s an Outlander. We can’t trust-”

“SHUT UP!” the elder roared. He was getting sick of hearing it. Quentin was dead, but apparently that meant nothing to them.

“Oh, I see,” Mordechai said. “You have a soft spot for him, eh? I’ll tell you what, Ferrier.” The young man dug even more large bills out of his pocket, this time all in Cavarice currency, and kicked a phase unit over to the young elder. “I’ll let you keep the one on your wrist, too. Two phase units, plus every bill I have.” He proceeded to count the denominations out in Max’s face as if he were a banker. “For one…little…Outlander. No?” Mordechai dropped it all to the floor in front of him and lit up a cigarette before backing away. “I’ll give you second to think it over.”

Why am I so conflicted now? the elder thought. In the beginning, he would have handed over a known Outlander to Mordechai with no problem. They were the ones who had attacked the wall, after all. None of them deserved sympathy or fair treatment for what they had done. Trust was not a luxury, either. And yet all the same, Max felt his pity getting the best of him whenever he glanced back at Olivier, despite knowing that his gang consisted of little more than thieves and murderers. For if he trusted Quentin with his life and the boy had still died protecting his family of Outlanders, perhaps many of them were not that bad. Maybe it was just Igor. Maybe they were all brainwashed, same as the rest of Cavarice. Maybe…

Conscience will only hold you back. That’s what Lucien had said last night. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about. But that’s not who Maxwell Ferrier was. He was a leader who took chances, who compromised for his brethren, who knew to trust his gut when something felt right. And giving up Olivier was not what was right. Still, it seemed the Outlander was now willing to sacrifice himself for the Barreau boys. Everyone else told him not to trust these people. They were thieves, murderers, rapists, cannibals. But were they liars?

Max noticed that a mischievous smile was spreading across Olivier’s face now, though he’d been gagged with scraps of undershirt. Tears had soaked the thin fabric, but the boy did not seem to be crying anymore. If anything, he looked elated about something. He nodded and pointed down at the floor, down at where that glorious pile of Viktorium money lay. He mumbled something to the elder and jerked his head to the right, as if to say ‘scram’.

“What are you trying to say?” Max asked, desperate for answers about this curious turn of behavior. “Quentin wanted to tell me something before it was too late. What is it? Tell me! Here, let me help you.” The elder reached to loosen the knot on the gag, but Olivier shook his head. “Don’t take it off?” The boy nodded.

“Time’s up, Ferrier!” Mordechai interrupted, grabbing up his bottle of gin and charging over. “Have you made your final decision?”

“I believe I have,” Max hung his head and swallowed hard. That’s when he noticed a curious movement in the reflection of one of the Dispatcher watches. Olivier wasn’t pointing at the money, the elder realized. He was pointing at the time. There were ten seconds until 8:10. “We accept your offer.” With that, Max and the others pushed the young Outlander forward.

“Wise choice,” Mordechai smiled, lunging forward to grab the boy.

But before he could lay so much as a finger on the child, a sudden glint of metal cut through the air from the right. Max couldn’t tell what it was until he noticed the blade of a knife buried deep in Mordechai’s forearm. The man cried out in pain as a gush of blood spurted all over the stolen Dispatcher parts.

Outlanders leaped down from the rafters with pistols and knives in hand and began dragging Mordechai’s followers out into the light. Shouts of protest and bloodcurdling screams filled the air while the younger boys kicked and struggled to get away. But the gang took them by their hair, their ankles, their arms or ears, any body part they could. Meanwhile, Max dove to the floor with Olivier and the rest of his group, staying close to the wall behind a pile of debris until the mayhem was over.

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House of Rats – Part 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry. The article looked interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“West Central.”

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

“Trouble?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

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

“I’m Gretel.”

“Nice to meet you, Gretel.”

“How about you, where are you headed?”

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

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

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

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

“What do the Dalishkova believe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then what?!”

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

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

“Holy shi-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the-”

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

“You’re not an anomaly.”

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

“Gretel.”

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

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

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

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

“What the hell are you?”

“I’m the Master of Lightning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You started this fight.”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

Gretel gasped. “How is that possible?”

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

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

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

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

“What frequency?”

“705 Hertz.”

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

“Deal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 20

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

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

“IGOR!” the man roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t even matter now…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Yes sir?”

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

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

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

“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”

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

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

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

“I’m sure we will,” Gabriel muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Severo!” the man shouted. “Sev!”

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

“Get your hands off of me!”

“Sir, please listen-”

“That’s my son, you hear me? Sev!”

“The Outlanders are getting away!”

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

“Sir-”

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

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

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

Then everything went black.

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House of Rats – Part 19

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

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

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

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

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

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

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

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

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Igor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

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

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

“Cluck cluck!”

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

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

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

_______________________

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

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

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

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you all know those verses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

“But-”

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

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

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

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

“I won’t ask again.”

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

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

“On what charges?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Godspeed.”

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

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

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

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House of Rats – Part 17

Quentin Vaugrenard took a deep breath and descended the crumbling stairwell that led down to the tunnel entrance where, just hours before, the Barreau boys had reentered the city. The black sack he’d slung over his shoulder felt heavier with each step as the breath drawn from his lungs grew painfully thin. Perhaps it was the weight on his conscience. Or how fast he had run from East Central. He wasn’t quite sure, but his muscles ached. Everything in his gut screamed for him to turn back. Sure, he scared the piss out of Lucien earlier just to regain a sense of power, but there was no such freedom when it came to the Outlanders. It was too late to back out now. He’d already made his stop at the orphanage.

He had wanted to pull Max aside throughout the day to tell him everything—how Igor had placed him in the city as a mole to gather information on how to return, and that Lucien was far more dangerous than any of them were willing to see. But he’d given up once he realized that his orphanage elder could no longer protect him anyway. Not from the Dispatchers, not from Lucien’s demands, certainly not the Outlanders. And what troubled him most of all was the fact that not even Severo could shield him from his fate now, wherever it lie.

The young Dalishkova Knight had approached him some months ago to pry for information about Igor. During that time, Quentin kept his secret well from the rest of the gang, though he often grew frustrated with the boy’s constant reminders to trust him. Just be patient, I can get you your freedom. Yet those promises had turned out to be as empty as the state of belief induced by that prayer amulet the knight carried—probably because the object turned out to have no effect on Igor whatsoever. Quentin was thankful Severo trusted him enough not to use it on him, though in some respects it certainly would have dulled the pain of being torn in so many directions with no place left to call home.

But this was it. The final door.

Quentin threw down the bag of phase units and opened a small control panel on the wall. Leaned his head against the cool concrete, just for a moment. Come on, Quent. Just go back and it will all be fine. Yeah right. Not a chance. Lucien would sooner have him kidnapped and tortured. Igor would do worse.

He nervously punched in the six-digit entry code to open the lock, followed by a specific sequence of knocks the Outlanders previously established; if he’d tried turning the wheel to open the door outright, they would assume it was a squad of Dispatchers and open fire. His heart fluttered in his chest when the heavy thing swung inward. As he stepped over the threshold, he hoped he didn’t have to deal with Igor for once, that maybe his former leader was off satisfying his ego elsewhere, perhaps torturing a small desert animal. No such luck.

“About time you got here, chicken,” the dirty little rat rasped. He’d brought three of his subordinates with him; Deirdre, Will, and a newer boy they called Joran. “What took you so long?” Igor wasted no time invading his personal space, forcing Quentin to back away until he nearly tripped over the steel threshold.

“Just got back from the metro.”

Igor snatched the black bag from his hands. “You stink like shit.”

“Likewise.”

“They’d better all be here.” The leader tossed the bag over to Will, who proceeded to do a count to be sure. All the while, Quentin did his best to avoid Igor’s iron gaze, but every time he looked up again, the boy was staring him down like a lion would its prey. He didn’t quit, even after Will confirmed that there were ten phase units. An eternity of silence passed before the former Outlander worked up the courage to speak.

“What more do you want?”

“Why the hell did you leave us?” Igor sneered.

“Obviously I haven’t if I’m still here.”

“The fuck you are!” The leader struck him across the face. “Tell me, how is your nice cushy life inside the wall, eh?”

“Not as cushy as you’d think,” Quentin trembled, rubbing his cheek. He nodded toward the bag of phase units. “So why all this? You could all just come through the tunnel right now. You’ve known about it for months. I’ll even let you in, get you into some abandoned place. Plenty of them on the Barreau block. You don’t have to do this, you know-”

“Oh, it’s not that I have to. I want to! Or did you forget what those Dispatcher scum did to us?!” Igor charged forward, pinning him to the wall and tearing his shirt down the middle to reveal the branding scar on his chest. “Don’t tell me that you FORGET!”

Quentin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the flecks of spit on his face. “So what’s your side of the plan?”

“We’re going to have us some fun!” Igor grinned. “And you’re going to join us.”

“And if I don’t?” He had to choke back bits of vomit as he spoke. Igor’s halitosis was unbearable.

“Then who’s to say what will happen next time you come around with Max and the gang?” the leader challenged, backing away to join his subordinates. “We might not be so nice to you. That’s if we even need your services after tonight. We’ll be city dwellers again, after all. Who knows…I might just come by the orphanage one night and cut all your pretty little chicken throats while you’re fast asleep.”

Quentin shuddered as the scrappy child grinned in that menacing way of his, knowing full well that he could do it if he really wanted. The former Outlander had witnessed Igor do far worse during those first initial months in the desert villa. Things like smashing the skull of the weakest boy, Ewan, then gutting him and cutting off pieces of his body to cook for food. Of course Quentin had lied to Lucien about that part. But the thought of it happening to any of the Barreau boys…

“Look, why don’t you just come through now?” he whimpered. “There’s plenty of room for you at Barreau, I’ll talk to Max. You can join us. You can have a family, a real family! It’s not much, but-”

“SHUT UP for Christ’s sake!” Igor struck him again. “I didn’t plant you in the city so you could find a family and live happily ever after! The Outlanders ARE your family! So either you can die a hero, or you can die a coward. But if I were you, I’d choose wisely, ‘cause there’s only one way out of this, mate.”

“No…” Quentin backed against the wall, his heart hammering away in his chest. During his short life, he’d been ready for a lot of things, but nothing could prepare him for the prospect of death. The very thought hit him harder than any other.

“What’ll it be, then?” Igor asked. “Front lines, or a big bloody chicken coop?”

“I c-can’t just stay in the villa?” the boy choked up.

“What?” his leader gasped, grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him close. “And miss my fireworks, eh? I don’t think so. Nobody stays behind. Not even the girls. Shit, even Deirdre here is going, with her fine pair of tits,” he grinned back at her. “I’ll be right by your side, too.”

“You will?” Quentin was taken aback.

“Unlike Lucien or Max, I’m a hero who does my fighting on the ground with my family. Joran’s going too, and he’s the newest of us.” The boy proudly saluted Igor. “See how committed he is already? More than I can say for you,” Igor turned away.

“He’s indoctrinated.”

The leader chuckled. “I see the city’s turned you soft. What ever happened to you? You were my right hand man, Quent. You used to kill for me. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”

“No, but I do my damnedest to try,” the boy trembled.

“And if your Barreau boys knew, you really think they’d take you back?”

Quentin felt his heart drop to his stomach. The burgeoning lump in his throat had finally burst, giving way to sobs of defeat. Igor was right all along. Freedom was nothing more than an illusion. He could fight it with words and citizenship documents as much as he wanted. He still had no other choice. In fact, he never did. The moment he joined the Outlanders, he belonged to Igor. None of the Dispatchers would come to his rescue if he were a Barreau boy, either. He’d been branded as one of the hunted long ago. I don’t belong anywhere. As if to seal that fate, he took notice of Will in his peripheral vision proceeding to shut and lock the tunnel door behind them. Nowhere to run. He already felt the tight strap of a phase unit going around his wrist. He didn’t bother fighting it.

“Fine.”

“Welcome back to the family,” Igor smiled. “You’re going on the front lines, chicken. Don’t worry. If you die, we’ll name a bridge after you.” He gave the unit one last tug to be sure it was secure and handed him off to Joran and Will. “Take him to join the others by the hatch.”

A sudden electric crackle echoed down the tunnel as Will sparked a blue pulse to light their path.  Quentin plodded quietly into the dark ahead of Igor and Deirdre, the prior warmth from his tears now plastered cold as stone onto his face. His thoughts drifted back to home. Not his home with the Outlanders, or even his home in the Barreau District…Paris. The sound of the phase unit must have triggered a memory lost from within. The last thing he recalled about life on Earth was slipping into an alleyway, curious about some electrical disturbance. Perhaps it was a downed live wire. He had heard his mother’s voice calling behind him clear as day until it abruptly disappeared.

The more he focused on this memory, the more Quentin found himself beginning to feel almost blissfully resolute concerning his probable fate. Family, he thought. Someone out there had loved him. Even in his darkest hour, that seemed enough. Besides, if his mother was not still looking for him on this side of the afterlife, he took solace in the fact that Max definitely was. Perhaps there would still be a chance to escape after all. And when he got back, he would try to find his parents.

I just have to make it through the gate.

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House of Rats – Part 13

Later that evening, the Barreau boys had gathered at Morcourt Hall to plan for the annual welcome gala with Mayor La Cour. Max always found it to be a boring affair, though the boys under his watch were more than happy to be involved in something that made them feel important for once. The mayor rambled on as he led them about the sprawling, lavishly adorned grand ballroom with one of his advisors, who took notes as they walked. Everything concerning the layout was much the same as it had been in the past year. Decor was recycled. Security checkpoints were identical. The same Dispatchers—minus Captain Georges, of course—would be attending the event. Little more than the table order of the wealthiest figures in Viktorium had been switched.

“And Miss Constance Renou will be seated here, with her longtime film director friend Giovanni Abbascia on the opposite side…let’s see…Fritz Lang will go over here. No wait, that’s not right…”

Lucien let out a long sigh beside Max. “Can’t you just feel the life slowly draining out of you with every word this man speaks?”

“I’m not sure,” the elder replied. “There’s a running tally in my mind between his words and yours. I can’t quite decide who is worse.”

“You’re seriously going to continue this nonsense?”

“You still owe Quentin an apology.”

Lucien leaned forward and tapped the boy on the shoulder as the group continued on, cupping his hand over his ear to whisper something. Quentin rolled his eyes and stomped on the elder’s foot, sending him hobbling backward into a table. As he fell, Lucien managed twist around and drag the entire cloth off, sending the vase of flowers crashing to the floor where it shattered in a million pieces. The entire group glowered with scorn.

“Good lord boy, watch your step!” the mayor snapped.

“Sorry,” the elder sighed, stepping to his feet.

La Cour turned to his advisor. “Get clean-up in here right away.”

“Yes sir.”

“Can’t blame him, but at least you tried,” Max smirked, brushing bits of glass off him.

“Yeah…still doesn’t earn me any points.”

The two caught back up with the group, lingering a few steps behind so they could speak privately whilst observing their younger subjects. It wasn’t difficult to keep an eye on everyone now since they seemed far more enthralled than their elders just to be touring the Metropoliès District. The opportunity didn’t come often for them. Still, Max resented the fact it was simply a pity move on the part of the mayor. Not like he sensed the man could do much to improve their situation; he always seemed to have his hands tied. It was nice camouflage, anyway.

“So how were those drinks with the Dispatchers?” Max asked.

“Can’t stop taunting me, eh?”

“Actually, I was wondering how close you got with them.”

“Not as close as I wanted to.”

“Munitions storage?” Max felt like a hypocrite. What Lucien had done bordered on the unforgiveable, and yet here he was, wondering if it might in fact be a good idea to continue fostering such a connection. But it seemed too late to be angry anymore. The welcome gala was coming up fast, and there were far more important things to worry about following the celebration. Rooms at the orphanage still had to be renovated so the boys could pair into their own flats. They needed their own kitchen and dining hall, and a staff to maintain it. All of it required precious funds, none of which the mayor could provide on his own.

“Suddenly we’re curious!” Lucien grinned.

“We need money. I don’t quite care where it comes from.”

“Now we’re talking. I never got around to the armory, unfortunately. But I did come across something better.”

“Better? Nothing they carry is more valuable than the phase units.”

“It is a phase unit. Or at least the plans of one.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You know how sometimes the Dispatchers make private deliveries to ensure nothing gets lost or stolen at the post office? The majority of those directives are issued by Tesla.”

“Yeah, so?”

Lucien stopped and pulled Max back behind a nearby column.

“So I noticed blueprints on the lieutenant’s desk. A phase unit prototype, special-ordered by Mayor Nicolas.”

Max’s eyes went wide. “Mayor Nic-”

“Keep your voice down!” Lucien covered his mouth. “The blueprints are scheduled to arrive here just before the opening gala begins.”

“Blueprints are useless without parts.”

“I checked the list. It might take some scavenging, but we have most of the necessary inventory. The bulk of it is in the wiring.”

Max peered around the corner to be sure the mayor was still distracted. The group was getting a little ahead of them, though not too far. The old man was still rambling about who sat at which table.

“How is this different from the other units we’ve seen?”

“It’s meant to dispatch living tissue.”

“We already know that phase units would likely kill a person-”

“Not kill. Dispatch.”

“For the mayor?” Max gasped. “I thought those were outlawed after DuPont was exiled! What the bloody hell is he so afraid of?”

“I don’t know, but there are rumors security has been tighter around his residence. No doubt it will be increased on the upper floors here for the welcome gala.” Lucien glanced above them at the second floor balcony. The La Cour family always took vacation leave at Morcourt during the two-week period of the gala run. “Jacques told me they’ve been detecting anomaly readings around Nicolas for the past month.”

“Strange.”

“Yeah…”

The power flickered, causing an array of hushed gasps from the orphans. Max looked around them for a moment, his gaze drifting up high to the balconies and rafters, then back down to every exit in the ballroom. He wasn’t sure if he expected to see something—or someone—dashing out in a flash of electric light, though he found himself snapping to attention much quicker ever since his experience in the courthouse. He wondered if more people like that strange boy might exist. What if there were an entire collective of them who traveled up and down the frequencies, if indeed any higher dimensions existed than Viktorium? Would such people be friendly, or were they biding their time until they arrived to destroy the frequency? Of course there was still the possibility that Bernard was right after all, that it had been a figment of his imagination brought on by the strobe effect of the flashing lights combined with the unit of Dispatchers in the courthouse basement. But I know what I saw.

“Ah, Cecile!” the mayor exclaimed.

Max snapped out of his thoughts. He and Lucien both turned their heads to look at the glorious angel of a girl approaching from across the ballroom. Her rich, golden hair was cut shorter from the last time they had seen her, styled in a wavy bob of curls that bounced freely about her face. Her dress was Paris green with black lace running down the sides, tailored in a cut that bore a hint of cleavage and a tad too much thigh. No other woman in Viktorium would dare wear such a thing. Mayor Nicolas cleared his throat in unvoiced disapproval as she took his hand and swirled into his arms with a smile.

“What do you think, Daddy?”

“I think it’s lovely, my dear,” the man kissed her cheek. “But you’re not wearing that to the gala.”

“Daddy, please!” she pouted.

“Certainly not!”

“Well our guests from the Barreau block like it. Don’t you, boys?” she cooed with a curtsy. The young orphans murmured approval amongst each other and nodded, gazing up and down her curvy figure.

“I think it’s lovely,” Lucien grinned. Max elbowed him in the ribs.

“Exactly my point,” the mayor sneered.

“But I’ve just turned seventeen! I can’t be your baby forever, you know? I promise I’ll only dance with you if it makes you happy.”

Her father let out a weary sigh. “I’ll consider it.”

“Oh, thank you so much Daddy, I love you!” she smiled, wrapping her arms around him.

“Yes yes,” he patted her on the back. “Now would you mind running along for now? There’s so much preparation work to be done for our welcome gala-”

“Oh don’t be silly Father,” Cecile cut him off, “you know the setup is exactly the same as last year and you’re boring these poor boys half to death! How would you gents like the upstairs tour of Morcourt Hall?”

“Now wait just a minute!” the mayor protested, but the boys were already surrounding his daughter in excitement. Nicolas threw up his hands and turned to his advisor. “I give up. Just leave it the same as last year aside from the front tables. No one will know.”

“Yes sir,” his aide nodded.

Max rushed to join Lucien and Cecile at the front of the group as they all headed up the grand staircase to the second floor, but a voice beckoned him back.

“Hey Maxwell!” the mayor called from the bottom.

“Yes sir?”

“Not to tear you off my daughter’s tour, but I was wondering if I might have a word. Would you mind walking with me? I’ll show you the view from the roof,” the man smiled.

Max considered it a moment. He still didn’t feel comfortable letting Lucien out of his sight, especially not with Cecile. Then again, Bernard would keep watch and it wasn’t as if he’d have the chance to pull anything stupid while the rest of the group was in tow anyway. The young elder also felt a certain weight of guilt beginning to wear on his chest. Knowing the mayor’s private concerns regarding anomalies, and that he was having a special phase unit constructed—a unit he and Lucien intended to steal at the first available opportunity—it didn’t make him feeling like feigning honesty.

Max and the other boys had become good friends with the mayor and Cecile in the last couple years they’d worked the welcome gala together. It was a pity to have to lie to his face. It felt wrong. Then again, Max had witnessed Viktorium devolving into a house of rats ever since his arrival. No one could fully be trusted, but in some ways, that was okay. It was easier to justify when the mayor had done little to help them. Still, he hated knowing that even under his watch, the Barreau boys were becoming as corrupt as the rest of the city. He couldn’t live with that forever.

The elder breathed a deep sigh and trudged back down. This was going to suck.

“All right.”

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