“Passionate people make this world harder to live in.”Olivier Chance
“What is the color of a person’s soul? Well, that’s an easy question to answer.”
Olivier Chance eyed Professor Morgan with annoyance. Morgan was a young professor flexing his theories and methods at the Royal University of New Ram City. Rumor had it he was only two years out from obtaining his conducting license. Rumor had it that he’d even earned the highest score on the State Conducting Exam out of his entire year. Perfect for teaching others how to score similarly on their Conducting Exams. But Olive didn’t care about those rumors. He didn’t even care about the fact that Morgan was so young. What Olive cared about was the fact that Morgan himself cared about these rumors and he let it affect his teaching style. Morgan was so desperate to please and to be liked that he’d even ask a simple question like this.
“The answer can be found by examining a person’s vitae—or so says the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Morgan said with a charming smile that almost seemed to say, please tell me you’re enjoying this lecture. “And while we’ve known how to harness vitae for energy and channel vitae in different forms for several centuries now, we’ve yet to fully understand it. Which is peculiar to think about since it’s the basis of the founding of our thirteen countries of Signum. We power our world via the vitae reservoirs found throughout it. And even more peculiar when you realize we’ve fought a war over these things! And who discovered these vitae reservoirs?” He paused for dramatic effect. “Our Ancestors, the nomads and first settlers of Signum, after whom our countries were named.”
Well, Olive supposed, as boring as it was to hear a rehash of basics, it was much better than having to slog through new topics.
“Quick question. What was one major result of this aforementioned Reservoir War?”
A hand shot up, and before Morgan even had the chance to acknowledge it, the hand’s owner answered matter-of-factly, “Well, Capricorn became a military-based government and Virgo started its isolation.”
“And the peacekeeping city-state of Ophiuchus was founded, professor.”
“Precisely. And what purpose–”
“To mediate positive, peaceful relations between the twelve countries, professor. And, of course, to handle the terrorist group ELPIS.”
“Great, Hannah. Perfect!” The professor clasped his hands. “Now, would you mind giving the others a chance to answer my next question?” He gestured to all of them. “Back to the matter at hand. Vitae. How can we visualize a person’s vitae?”
A dozen hopeful hands flew high at the question and Olive dodged one that grazed his face. The glare he sent the girl sitting beside him went unnoticed. The offense wasn’t worth the effort of confrontation, so Olive settled on glaring out the window across the classroom. From his desk he could faintly make out the glowing cityscape beyond the rising red-brick walls of the school.
“Well, Chance, what do you think?”
Professor Morgan’s shadow passed over him.
“How do you think we can visualize a person’s vitae?” He paused. “I’ll give you a hint. It’s through the same type of device we use to power our”—he cleared his throat—“country.”
Olive turned. The professor stood in front of him now with kind eyes and a smile even more desperate to please than before.
The answer to the question was obvious. A child could’ve answered it without a second thought. But that was why Morgan was asking it. An easy question, an easy answer. A feeling of fulfillment as teacher and student. All Olive had to say was, “You can see a person’s vitae color by having them use a conductor,” and then he’d fulfill whatever childhood dream his professor was holding onto.
Instead, he shrugged and turned his attention to the window again.
“Oh, come on, Chance.” Morgan chuckled. “Give it a try. Surely, the royal tutors have taught you all about the fundamentals of vitae. What do you think? I’ll give you another hint: The people who are trained to channel their vitae through these objects, often as weapons, are called similarly—Conductors with a capital C.”
Olive was thinking. Not about the question, but about the fact that it was around noon, which meant that the guards would be switching rotation. That meant the annoyingly dutiful Alexander would be going to lunch and the blasé Jacob would be taking his place outside the classroom.
Olive stood and paid no attention when Morgan stepped back in surprise. He approached the open window and swung his legs over the ledge.
And he leapt.
A blur of green and brown rushed up to meet him as rustling and snapping echoed in his ears. After a couple beats, he landed on all fours in a bed of red flowers. He fisted the petals in his palm and shook off his disorientation.
Glancing upward, he found the colorful faces of Morgan and several of his classmates staring back down at him two stories up. No time nor care to read their expressions.
He dusted himself off and made his way out of the floral display and onto the stone path just beyond. The floral display he had fallen into was one of the many that lined the walkway, and the window from which he had escaped was one of many that dotted the Vitae Studies Hall. Sun sprinkled through the leaves of the trees overhead and through the archways that connected the hall to another on his right and to his left. The golden droplets of light dappled the flags swaying on the walls. In the brightness, they glowed red.
Olive gave the flags a pointed glare before he took off down the path in a dash. He could hear shouts of alarm and stampeding footsteps filter out down from the classroom window. Eventually, the sounds faded away and were replaced by the serene chirping of birds.
He slowed to a stop as the open pathway ended and led to a roofed hallway. Sunlight spilled into the corridor from open windows and painted the black doors tucked between them a blinding white.
Just as he was about to duck into the hall, one of the doors closest to the mouth swung open. Olive flung himself into the nearest floral display and scrambled up a tree. Wrapping his arms around the highest branch, Olive held his breath.
Below him came a pair of guards wrapped in red.
“Ollie, you can’t keep doing this,” whispered a voice above him. “Professor Morgan is gonna have a stress-induced heart attack one day. He really cares about you, y’know.”
There she was again. Her wisps of dark hair curled around her round face as she spied at him sternly from a branch above. The sunlight streaming in through the trees caught her hair in such a way that it looked ablaze.
“You’re too naïve,” he said. He wanted to sigh, but even that was too much effort.
“You’re too negative,” she returned with a pout. “Pessimistic.”
“Pessimistic implies that I care,” he muttered. “Which I don’t.”
He stared past her over the roof of the hall to the city that lay beyond. The sun beat down on the city traffic like a whip. They looked like dots from here—the people. Tiny dots weaving around each other and sputtering v-ehicles in single-file. Almost like ants. But if anyone was an ant, Olive reasoned, it was himself.
He looked back up at her and returned with a roll of his eyes: “It’s just a figure of speech.” He turned back to the view just in time to see a glinting speck on the horizon. A glinting speck hurtling right toward him. Closer, closer, closer.
An arrow. It was an arrow. An arrow shrouded in vermillion-red, flame-like vitae. An Ariesian must have been the archer.
He couldn’t dodge it in time.
But what he could do was try to activate his vitae and pull up his defenses. That arrow would be incinerated in an instant. But—no. That would be too dangerous.
The arrow pierced his shoulder and knocked him right out of the tree.
He heard a shout from a guard below.
But he felt no pain.
The air was no longer thin and dry but heavy and cold. The sun dimmed. The guards were still shouting. The flower bed on the ground was coming closer and closer to him. Rather, he was coming closer to it. It met him warmly, as did she as she knelt beside him to touch his shoulder.
Her dark hair fell like a canopy over his face as true darkness crept in at the corners of his vision. He couldn’t help but think the reason she was here was to watch this unfold. This?
“Life is only one letter away from lie, ya know? What does that mean? You tell me.”Cadence Morello
The air was thick with smoke and the smell of booze. The dim v-lights barely had the power to pierce through the veil of grayness that was the cloud of ash hanging over the room. The haziness was the perfect blanket for Cadence to hide in.
They sat at one of the many round tables that dotted the bar. On the table before them was an array of playing cards with small tokens interspersed in-between. The man sitting across the table was looking at her as if he could read her like a book.
Damn. He was so too predictable.
The v-watch he wore was a knock-off, indicating he was a show-off who was easily swindled. His tight monochrome suit that strangled his wrists and neck indicated he was in denial of his current circumstances and he may not have the funds for a new one. In other words, he was desperate for money and respect.
The man sneered at her as he tugged his collar with one hand and waved his set of cards in the other. “Looks like this game is just about to wrap up, Antonio.”
That was not her name, of course. That was who she looked like at the moment. Yes, Antonio Figeroli was the guise she currently wore. Antonio Figeroli was a middle-aged man with a hanging gut and a sadly receding hairline. He had a swaggering demeanor and often threw his money at whatever caught his eye, be it women, clothes, or alcohol. He frequented this tavern so often that the bartender always prepared his drink before he arrived in order not to face the man’s impatient wrath.
It hadn’t been difficult to pick up Figeroli’s mannerisms. All she had to do was swing by the tavern a couple of times and chat him up when he was drunk. He’d been even easier to read than this buffoon. At the moment, the real Antonio Figeroli was passed out in an alleyway somewhere in the city—courtesy of the Romano Family.
The fact that this man truly believed her to be Antonio Figeroli just highlighted how stupid he was. For saint’s sake, he was in the left Twin City: home of thieves and birthplace of everything underground. If someone in this city approached you out of the blue, it meant they either wanted your money, wanted your life, or wanted your body.
“Damn, Tulio,” she swore in the deep and rumbling voice of Antonio with a spit for good measure. She slammed her fists onto the table with cards still in hand just as Antonio would and bowed her head. Her rings clacked against the wooden surface as she tapped her fingers in mock impatience. “This can’t be right. You’re cheating.”
“Not cheating.” Tulio grinned. “I’m just that good.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and looked him over carefully. “Say, I’ve seen you here before once or twice. Always drunk as hell. Made me feel better about myself. So, what’s with the sudden confidence?”
Tulio considered her for a moment and then smirked.
Hook. Line. Sinker.
The man leaned across the table and glanced around the tavern with narrowed eyes. She leaned forward to meet him and pricked her ears.
“Just between you and me,” he whispered, “I got myself a new gig distributing some state-of-the-art conductors to some very generous buyers. You wouldn’t believe how desperate people are nowadays for one of ’em since Ophiuchian regulation makes ’em impossible to get.”
“Don’t ya mean how desperate people are to make money sellin’ ’em?” she returned.
A pause, and then: “Your voice—”
Rising to a slow stand, she wiggled her ringed fingers and felt them prickle where the metal of the ring touched her skin. Copper light blossomed from the area and crawled up her arm before reaching her face. When the light faded, the man sitting across from her let out a shout and fell backward in his chair.
“Y-You’re not…! You’re a Conductor!” the man stammered, pointing a shaking finger in her direction. “You’re a kid!”
She paused. Raising a brow, she lifted her hat and scratched her red hair. “Not what I expected to hear, but what can I say?”
Holding out her cards for him to see, she let them slip from her fingers and onto the table. As they left her hand, they glimmered copper, just as her body had. The two of spades became an ace of hearts. The five of clubs became a queen of hearts. The jack of diamonds became a jack of hearts. And the king and ten of spades became a king and ten of hearts. An illusion broken. A royal flush.
“The name’s Cadence Morello.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Personal associate of the Romano Family, at your service.”
At the family name, Tulio paled, then greened, then paled again. In an instant, he was on his knees, crawling to her ankles. “I… I… I…, please. I meant no disrespect! I’ve got a family I need to provide for! You understand, don’t you? My children! Please, I’ll give you all the conductors I have and—”
She took a step back from him with raised hands. “Ey, ey, I get it. These are hard times. People get desperate. But ya can only go so far and get sympathy, ya know? I mean, did ya really think ya could go encroachin’ on the Romano Family’s turf and get away without a single scrape? Even I’m not that lucky.” She fell to a crouch and met his gaze with a reassuring smile. “Look. If ya tell us who’s been providin’ ya with those conductors, then I might be able to get in a good word for ya. Maybe only two fingers cut off instead of all ten.”
The man’s eyes widened. He wobbled in place.
“Whoa, don’t go passin’ out now,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t want ta have ta drag your body to the boss, ya hear?”
The man did not move. And then it clicked for her. He was not staring at her in fear. He was staring at something behind her.
She turned her head just in time to see a flash of bright light followed by a gust of heat. The gust knocked her clean off her feet, and she was thrown backward into the bar. Glass rained down around her in clicks and clacks—a sound which seemed to match the beat of the crackling and popping that echoed in the background.
With much effort, she cracked open her eyes.
The air was clouded in smoke. A shroud of it. But this time the shroud did not aid her. No, it was suffocating her with its gray hands.
She couldn’t breathe.
Not only that.
She couldn’t move.
Flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. The flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass scattered around her.
No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she was so close.
She gagged, hacked, coughed.
Vitae Reservoirs: are pools of hard vitae that are harvested to power the countries of Signum. A long war was fought over these things.Lecture 56a, Professor Morgan, New Ram Royal University