“Izsak? Oh, he’s a very nice man. His daughter is really cute… but his wife is a little bit scary. He conjured a box of sweets for me for my birthday once. It wasn’t too pretty and it tasted pretty bad, but it was a really nice surprise. At least until Talib said that the jelly beans were laced with a mind control drug, but that’s a whole nother story… but, yes… Izsak’s really nice.”Ferris Hart, Assignment Department of Ophiuchus
New Ram City, Aries
Wtorek Izsak first learned how to use a conductor at the age of eight.
He grew up in a small, isolated, sheep-herding village called Okor embedded in the heart of the Great Lascaux Mountain that ran the length of Taurus’s eastern border with Ophiuchus.
The only thing they knew of the war were the occasional loud cracks they’d hear in the distance. Although rare, they were booming sounds that sent shockwaves rippling through the air.
Every time the rumbling would rock their village, his grandfather would rub his nose and say, “Guess that means the war’s still going on, ’ey?”
The day the conscription man came. He took names, birth years, heights, and weights, and gave each member of their village a V-Type Test. The test consisted of holding a metal handle connected to a glass vial. There would be a sharp prick at the base of the palm, and then a black, misty shape would form inside of the tube. The conscription man would take the vial, either give a grunt of approval or a sigh of disappointment, and then jot down whatever was satisfactory or dissatisfactory to him in his notes.
When it was Izsak’s turn to take the test, the shape that formed was a half circle. When the conscriptionist inspected the vial, a smile cracked across his face. To ten-year-old Izsak, it was quite frightening.
“Well, look at that! You’re a Conjurer! Just like me,” the conscriptionist boomed, giving Izsak a friendly shake before gesturing to the conducting gloves on his hands. “Most battles can’t be won without a Conjurer, you know that? We’re the backbone of the battalion!”
It was that afternoon that the Sagittarian descended upon them. The Elementalist Conductor came riding in on a storm of wind. Harnessing the power of air, she tore up trees from their roots, fences from their nails, houses from their foundations. A tornado of terror. When she came across the conscription man, she merely twirled her finger at him and watched as he suffocated in the vacuum she’d created around his head.
Izsak watched the man’s corpse drop to the ground from where he hid beneath the remains of his aunt’s house. He hadn’t known the man, but for some reason, he felt a righteous anger burn in his stomach at his death. Without thinking, Izsak tore from the rubble and ran for the man’s corpse. He ripped the conducting gloves off of the man’s hands and put it over his own.
They were too large, too heavy, and too cold for a child to wield but he did it anyways. His hand hummed with warmth, and a soft light emitted from the base of his palm.
It was quite feeble, the thing he conjured. It was the only thing he could think of, after all. A wooden shepherd’s stick.
He was left exhausted after its conjuring but let out an unruly shout when he swung it. The Sagittarian had easily dodged with a backstep. Still, he persisted, swinging and screaming, until he was a tired, panting, heaving mess on the dirty ground.
The Sagittarian laughed long and loud before turning away, taking the storm with her departure. Why she left him, he still didn’t know.
A hero, they later called him. His name was in the papers weeks after. ‘The Great Shepherd of Okor.’ He enjoyed the praise and the attention.
He just wished there was someone left in the village to share it with.
* * *
At the age of eighteen, after completing his conductor training, Izsak participated in his first battle. He was assigned as a support Conjurer for a joint Ariesian-Taurusian company in which he found easy comradeship despite his poor grasp on the Common language.
They were all young and eager for a fight. Some of them cried for revenge, others bragged about the numbers they would get under their belts, while others dreamed of the rewards they would receive when the war ended.
Izsak had his own way of counting ‘victory points,’ as they would call it. He had practiced conjuring weapons with his name engraved on them. “It counts as my kill,” he’d say to the chagrin of his company.
After the battle ended—they had won, of course—Izsak was sent with a group to trace back and pick up (or off) any survivors remaining on the battlefield. They joked all the while. Until they saw the bodies, that was.
When it came to battles, it was hard to see who one was shooting or swinging their conductor toward amidst the chaos. Even more so for Izsak, who usually hung along the rear, conjuring weapons and sometimes conductors for the front guard. But now, their victory points—their victims—were laid clear to them.
“Bastards,” mumbled an Ariesian as Izsak knelt to the ground. “Can’t believe they send…”
It was a child. A girl. Her hair wasn’t long enough to tie up into a ponytail, so it was splayed across her face and matted down with blood. There was a combat knife driven into her chest.
It was one of Izsak’s. His engraved name glowed in the faint sunlight on its hilt. Izsak Wtorek. One added victory point. One slain child.
The ride back to base camp was quiet.
While some of the returning soldiers bragged about their kills and others swore revenge for the fallen, most remained silent upon arrival at base and throughout lunch. Izsak was one of them, quickly grabbing his bowl of soup from the food aid and settling down in a far corner away from everyone else.
The soup was tasteless, but he continued to eat because he could not stand his reflection in it.
“They’re calling us Generation War.”
Izsak looked up from his nearly empty bowl.
“The poster children born into war, but fighting for a peaceful, righteous future,” the person continued. “I can’t really call someone who likes to sign murder weapons with their name a peaceful person though. Gotta say, you’ve changed since training, Izsak.”
It was a young woman. She had dark skin, a shaved head, and sunken eyes. Her uniform indicated that she was Ariesian. He recognized her. They had been part of a joint training exercise camp together months earlier. Gabrielle Law, was it?
“That’s not how you recruit people to a cause, Gabrielle,” came another voice. It was a pale young man with jet black hair. His eyes were as hollow as his cheeks. He looked like he’d drop dead any minute.
“I know what I’m doing, Moerani,” Gabrielle sighed before turning her attention back to Izsak. “So, you like killing kids then?”
“I…” Izsak had stared into the ground. “I didn’t know—”
“That you’d be killing children?” Gabrielle scoffed. “So if they were maybe—let’s say—eighteen years old, you’d be fine with it?”
Izsak looked away with balled fists. “You know the answer to that.”
Izsak scoffed, angrily scooping up a spoonful of soup. “What do you want me to say? One battle and I’m already weak to my knees? Yeah, I am, so wha—”
“You’re a Conjurer, aren’t you?” Gabrielle had interjected, pointing lazily to his gloved hands. “Don’t you want to see a world where they pay you to conjure a stuffed animal instead of a weapon?”
Izsak had choked on his soup. “A stuffed animal?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle affirmed. “This war is going to end within our lifetimes, and because it’s such a mess, they’re probably going to put a policing organization in place to clean things up afterwards. And that organization is going to control what the future is going to look like. People are going to abuse that power, definitely. Still, Izsak, that organization is going to be my ticket to bring order to this continent. Conjurers that conjure stuffed animals instead of weapons—that’s the future I want to see.”
Izsak frowned. “You sound like a villain, you know.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “If I’m the villain, do you mind being my minion?”
Izsak considered this. “Can’t I be co-villain?”
Gabrielle startled before she let out a booming laugh. A long laugh that lasted the better part of a minute. Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle’s companion, but the man merely shrugged.
“Sure, fine,” Gabrielle sighed, wiping a tear from her eye. “But there’s no turning back.”
Izsak arched a brow. “Well, if you’re going to do something crazy, of course I’m going to turn back. Anyways, why did you ask me?”
“You have a good reputation. The Shepherd of Okor, right?” Gabrielle smirked. “I need someone like that on my team.”
Not so long after, Gabrielle introduced him to Elizabeta, who immediately insulted his height. It was love at first sight. Izsak proposed to her on their third shared battlefront, and Elizabeta finally accepted on their seventh.
Several years after that, the formerly uninvolved central country of Ophiuchus declared an insane twelve-front war on the other twelve countries of Signum. The declaration was met with ridicule—at least that was until several vitae reservoirs were decimated in several countries by Ophiuchian Conductors. There was no better way to bring together bitter enemies than a common adversary. And that was how Izsak served in the final offensive against Ophiuchus. It was odd. Fighting beside Sagittarian, Virgoans, Scorpian, Libran, and Piscese soldiers that had been his enemy just a year before, but Gabrielle adapted quickly and seemed to forget the fact that the former had slain many of their comrades.
It wasn’t long after that the Treaty was signed by all twelve countries.
That night was the night Csilla was conceived. Izsak and his wife had decided to name her ‘Csilla’ after the Taurusian word for star. She was their star of hope, after all. Hope for a peaceful future.
At the war’s end, Izsak and Elizabeta settled back in his old mountain town. He’d spent his war funds building and renovating the perfect, quaint home for them, far away from the reaches of the politics of wartime’s end. The night they moved in, Izsak danced with Elizabeta across the rocky landscape, marveling with her at the beauty of a smokeless sky.
The next day, Izsak received a knock on the door. It was Gabrielle, dressed in a black suit with a white sash donned on her arm.
“Told you, didn’t I?” She had smirked, tapping her sash. “Ready to be my co-villain?”
How could he say no?
* * *
“And what exactly are you reminiscing for?” Gabrielle yawned from where she lay draped across the red velvet couch. She lifted the Manila folder that she had been using to block the sunlight from her face. “We’ve had the rug pulled right out beneath us.”
Izsak lowered the files he’d thumbed through and tossed them onto the glass table between them. “Well, I was just thinking of Eliza and Csilla just now—”
“That’s all you ever think about,” Gabrielle said, sitting up. “How is Csilla doing, by the way? I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“Aw, you know, all the boys in school are still fawning after her even after I threatened to conjure black widows in their rooms while they’re asleep.”
“An Ophiuchian Agent threatening a bunch of fourteen-year-olds,” Gabrielle hummed, lacing her fingers together. “No wonder they’re saying such good things about us. Even going so far as to impossibly conjure living things.”
“Well, they don’t know that it’s impossible,” Izsak huffed.
Gabrielle chuckled before pressing, “How is she really?”
Izsak offered a half-smile. “The doctors and medical Conductors say she’s doing better, but you know my Csilla—she’s still aiming to be the youngest to complete the State Conducting Exam even though she’s no longer a saint candidate.” Izsak sighed. “My sweet Csilla—”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You make me want to stay away from married life as long as possible.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Izsak returned the laugh. “Don’t take your anger about the case out on me. It’s not my fault that the Investigation Bureau here got to the culprit first.”
“Is that the real culprit though?” Gabrielle threw the file she’d been reading onto the table too and crossed her arms. “It’s all circumstantial evidence as best. Too convenient.”
“You think?” Izsak shrugged. “You’ve got a suspect who has pretty heated opinions about the royal family, and you’ve got matching weapons of choice.”
“Yeah, too convenient.”
“We could always ask the Ariesian Investigation Bureau for their case files.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Doesn’t change the fact that they are trying to kick us out as soon as possible.” She glanced around the room they were in.
It was well-furnished—perhaps, overly so. A golden ram statue sat in the corner and a diamond chandelier hung from the ceiling. They had been accommodated with a free room at the best hotel within New Ram City, after all. It was to be expected.
“Politics are the same here as always.” Gabrielle rubbed her face. “And as much as I want to get out of this place as soon as possible, I can’t deny that the feudal lord heading the Investigation Bureau might just be trying to use this to line their pockets.”
“You’re concerned about Olive,” Izsak realized. “There must be some national Ariesian loyalty in you left after all.”
“I’m surprised you’re not more concerned,” Gabrielle returned. “Thought your fathering senses would be tingling.”
“They are, mind you,” Izsak huffed. “But Olive seems to be doing a lot better than he was six years ago.”
Gabrielle grunted. “Still a brat.”
“By the way, how do you think Talib and Jericho are doing? Talib’s quite the handful, you know.”
“And according to Doctor Kingsley, Jericho is the handful,” Gabrielle said. “A perfect match.”
“You really think Jericho’ll agree to be your minion?” Izsak pressed. “I mean, he seems pretty smart. Not an idiot like the rest of us.”
“The question is if he’s worthy to join,” Gabrielle replied, reaching for the files again. “But Talib will be the one to determine that.”
“Talib does have good intuition about people,” Izsak agreed. “And what’s this about being worthy? Last I checked, you were desperately trying to get whoever you could on your better-future team.”
Gabrielle gave a noncommittal grunt in response before she flipped through the files again. She shook her head. “Everything’s just too convenient. Lining up too perfectly. The border conflict. Leona’s disappearance. That incident in Virgo. And now this. Plus, there’s ELPIS’s recent movements—or lack thereof.”
“You’re starting to sound like Talib,” Izsak noted. He responded to Gabrielle’s arched brow with a coy smile before a sudden thought occurred to him. He frowned.
“What is it?”
“I… there’s something I want to check.”
* * *
New Ram City’s largest library was located on its city’s university campus, which was nestled next to its royal palace. As expected, the library was extravagant. It boasted ten stories and had five deep-red banners emblazoned with the gold Ariesian ram at its front. Five of the ten floors were restricted to individuals with State Conducting Licenses, while three were restricted to Ariesian officials. To Izsak, there was no restriction at all. A quick flash of his sash and his badge to the librarian sitting at the front desk, and he was granted immediate access.
He started with the floors restricted to licensed Conductors. He could tell immediately that there was more love and care given to these levels. While the shelves on the lower floors were made of chipped and faded wood, the shelves here were not only much larger, but were also made of deep maroon oak. The windows were larger here as well, nearly taking up the full height of the walls. Many long, large, polished wooden tables were interspersed between the shelves—something that the lower levels did not have. These floors were surprisingly busy, so Izsak was forced to flash his badge to clear out a table for himself. It earned him a handful of glares, but that came with the job.
He secured his table by draping his suit jacket over the chair and paced over to the nearest shelf, which was labeled Conductors. There, he continued to ruminate and mutter to himself.
Prince Olivier Chance’s assassination attempt. The conflict between Capricorn and Aquarius. The current political unrest within Virgo. The missing Agent Leona. Agent Leona who was sent to investigate the possibilities of the assassination attempt despite not having any relations to Aries. Agent Leona who apparently was a saint candidate…
He shook his head. “Gabrielle’s making me paranoid.”
He briskly went to the history shelf and pulled out a book titled simply Ariesian Potential Saint Candidates. He flipped it open to the first page and found a brief description there:
‘A concept and tradition within Monadism that has prevailed since Signum’s founding and throughout the Reservoir War. These are individuals who show exceptional results on the V-Type Test and subsequent follow-up tests. These individuals tend to become prodigal Conductors who are said to show capabilities similar to that of the founding Ancestors. A truly remarkable achievement. Only one individual is selected per country of Signum for saint candidacy.’
But he already knew that. His little, precious Csilla was almost chosen, after all.
“Csilla…” He sighed, reaching for his pocket where he stored his photo of her. He stopped short when he received a reprimanding shush from a passing Conductor. Izsak whispered an embarrassed apology before focusing back on the text.
Below the definition he found a long list of Ariesian saint candidates.
He flipped through to the last recorded person. Lavender Chance. So, she really was…
Poor kid. Shaking the thought away, he went up the list slowly. And then he froze. “It can’t be…”
Tearing himself away from the book, he darted back to the history shelf and pulled out the large encyclopedia that sat at the top shelf. He stumbled backward at its weight, nearly knocking into someone behind him. After offering another apology, he made his way back to the table and set down the encyclopedia with a thud.
He spent the next two hours flipping through both texts and jotting down notes on a spare sheet of paper that was left behind by the table’s previous occupant. It was at the end of the third hour that he reached the startling realization—
“Why are they…? Why would they…?” he murmured, shaking his head as he stood and stumbled backward. He collided with the bookshelf behind him. He was hushed in response, but he was in no state of mind to pay attention.
He had to tell Gabrielle—no, Olive. Olive was at the center of this. This was bigger than the assassination attempt. This was bigger than all of them. Olive had to be…
Frantically, he ripped a page out from the encyclopedia and scribbled down a slew of words there. He then grabbed the nearest person walking by and shoved the paper into their hands while flashing his badge.
“Turn this into an Ophiuchian Agent by the name of Gabrielle Law in the Cardinal Hotel. Room 13. Do you understand? This is important!”
Without waiting for an answer, Izsak dashed down the staircases and out of the library. The sky was pitch black, and the city lights glowed yellow on the horizon.
Had this much time really passed? No time to think about it.
He tore through the darkened campus walkway in search of the exit. There. An open hall lined with white pillars. He had entered through there earlier.
Just as he was making way past the hall, a voice echoed—
“Where exactly do you think you’re going, Izsak?”
Izsak abruptly froze in place. A chill crept up his spine, as he turned around. There, in the deep black shadow of a pillar.
The figure stepped out from behind the pillar. A hand was kindly extended. “You know I can’t let you go now. You should just come with me. You played the idiot, but you were always too smart for your own good.”
Izsak lowered his head and bit his lip. “Look who’s playing who.”
“I am truly sorry.”
“Sorry enough to let me go?”
“You know the answer to that question.”
“Well then…” Izsak held out his hand and flicked his wrist. There was a flash of light and a buzz of warmth. A familiar shape formed in Izsak’s palm. A pistol.
“Are you really going to—”
Without hesitation, Izsak pulled the trigger.
* * *
He had pulled the trigger nearly point blank, yet he was running for his life. He had somehow managed to make it off campus, but the royal palace was kilometers away despite it being within sight.
Unfortunately for him, the route connecting the university campus to the royal palace was completely deserted. No witnesses. Nowhere to hide. Talk about bad luck.
Izsak spotted a tree in the distance. He darted toward it and ducked behind, pressing his back against the trunk and trying to calm his heavy breathing. Tuning his ears to the silence that permeated around him, he waited.
“You’re a Conjurer, Wtorek,” came a sympathetic sigh from his side. “Projectors are the fighters, Transmutationists the healers, Manipulators the spies, Elementalists the destroyers, Conjurers—well. The best you can do is support others. You can’t win battles on your own. Especially against a Specialist. This was hopeless since the beginning. You should know this.”
Izsak gripped his bleeding shoulder and grimaced as he peeled away from the tree and glared into the darkness. “Yeah, I’m feeling pretty screwed right now. Kind of want to start praying to our Ancestors.”
A deep chuckle resounded. “Is this really the time to be joking?”
“This all feels like a joke to me, really,” Izsak remarked, as he heard the familiar hum of a conductor being activated. “To think that ELPIS of all things was right about conductors. Really, it’s bugging me. But it makes sense for me to agree with ELPIS. I’m a co-villain, after all.”
A small, but sharp light above him caught his attention. A star. Csilla.
His last thought was of her.