The dominoes are beginning to fall
Maria has a bounty on her head, but she is not concerned with it. Instead, she has focused her attention on retrieving a package she is to deliver to the Campanas from Pisces. Upon arrival at Pisces, however, she has discovered that the package holder Elele has been murdered by the bounty hunters after her head and that the package is now missing. Maria thus begins a hunt for the bounty hunters, while Conta’s aloofness weights on the back of her mind. Her mysterious new crew member Ley also seems to know more than she’s letting on. Amongst everything, there is a tale swirling around about a “beast of the deep”.
“We’ve been on this so-called hunt for over three days now, Captain,” Morandi grumbled from where he sat at the foot of the steps. “This isn’t looking good. If the Campanas were to…”
“Nonsense, my dear Morandi!” Maria laughed, wiggling her bare toes and feeling the smooth stone beneath her feet. She reached down into the river which ran up to her thighs, cupped a puddle of it in her arms, and then flung it in Morandi’s direction.
Ley and Simon who were seated to his left managed to leap away just before the wave of water crashed onto shore, but Morandi and the others at his right were not as lucky and were barraged by the torrent.
“Captain!” came the shouts of exasperation.
Morandi sighed before he pulled off his shirt, wrung it over the river, and laid it out on one of the steps to dry.
Maria had discovered this waterway during one of their many searches for the bounty hunters. The water here was crystalline, making the rock bed beneath it visible to the naked eye. The rush of the river was barely audible, and the entire thing was bordered by a pair of short staircases on each end. Beyond the stairs on the left was a strip of empty, small, and colorful brick buildings; and beyond the stairs to the right was a patchwork of marshy overgrowth.
Upon their arrival, Maria had staked a claim on the land and labeled it as hers. Simon had informed her that it wouldn’t be possible for her to claim the land legally to which Maria had responded with “that’s why we do it not legally, no?” That had all been in good jest, of course. There was no way she would trap this piece of gorgeous land under her title. Something as beautiful as this deserved to be free and unclaimed. In a sense. It was still hers, of course. If anyone would dare to defile it, she would show them the terror that was the Golden Beast.
“I wonder what is taking my dear Giorgio so long?” Maria sighed as she ran her hand along the surface of the water. “He is surprisingly energetic when it comes to this stuff, yes?” She recalled Giorgio’s excitement when they’d first found this river. He had floundered around with her, kicking up the water with his feet.
“He’s a river boy at heart,” Morandi explained as he picked up a stray stone and tossed it into the river. “His village—before it was attacked by ELPIS—was renowned for its fishing industry. He’s practically married to any flowing body of water. It’s a bit of a strange interest, now that I think about it.”
Maria paused in her play to glance over her shoulder. Sitting on the steps at the opposite side of the river was Conta. The woman stared at Maria with a blank expression which deepened into a frown when Maria wadded across the river to join her.
“What are you looking at my dear, Conta?” Maria asked, falling to a crouch in the stream in front of her so they were at eye level. “I was looking for you earlier, you know? Usually, you are already one step behind me, but this time I had to go in search of you! It’s fun to switch things up from time to time, yes?”
Conta averted her gaze. “I suppose, Captain.”
Maria chuckled lightly, resting her chin on her knees. “You know, it is strange. I am actually sort of glad that you are mad at me, Conta. It’s more funny than strange, actually? I mean…” She paused to stare at Conta’s reflection in the rippling water. “It is from that distance that I truly realize how much you mean to me.”
Conta’s reflection stiffened, and her eyes narrowed. “Captain, I…”
Maria beamed and popped her head up. “Even though I say that, I still hope that your next words are going to be ‘I am no longer upset with you.’ I truly did not mean to say that—” Maria paused, rose, and turned around.
Giorgio was coming along the strip of trodden land lining the stairs at the opposite side of the river. In his hands was a brown bag full of food. A gift from Raul, probably. The chef had decided he felt comfortable enough not accompanying Maria several days ago and had returned to the ship to continue his cooking duties. Since the stores and stalls dotting the pier were still devoid of people, it was not so hard to raid them for food ingredients. In fact, it had been rather boring. But Raul was happy with that so Maria supposed it was fine.
Maria drifted back across the river and popped up back onto the stairs just as Giorgio came down the stairwell. When she approached him, he flinched away from her while holding the brown bag high above his head.
“Captain! Captain!” Giorgio stammered. “The food! You’re dripping wet!”
Maria neared him still, placing one finger to her lips as she reached for something at his belt. “You said you sleep with a knife, my dear Giorgio, but I see you have started carrying it with you all times! You are starting to get the hang of me being your captain, yes?”
Maria plucked the knife from his side, flipped it and caught it by the tip of its blade, before hurtling it in the direction of one of the buildings behind him. The knife whistled through one of the open window there—a sound followed by a loud grunt and then a thud.
Maria brushed past the others and headed to the building she had sent the knife into. She leapt in through the window and landed deftly on the wooden floor inside. There was a trail of blood there leading to the corner of the room, and within that corner resided a panting man clutching his left arm. He was tall and dark with blue eyes. He tensed as Maria approached him.
Her gaze flicked to his sides. No weapons.
Wait. Had she gotten the wrong person?
Pay attention. Observe.
Her gaze drifted to the man’s wound—rather, the hand clutching the wound. And then she smiled. This was definitely the right person. What was it that Cadence always said? ‘Bingo.’
“You are not a very good spy, yes?” Maria asked, reaching forward and wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the knife that protruded from his arm. “I could see you following my dear Giorgio from far away, my friend.”
The man’s bandaged hand gripped his wound and what little of the blade protruded from his arm. He was evidently missing several fingers.
Without hesitation, Maria ripped the knife out from his arm and watched as the man yelped and slid to the ground with a groan.
Maria fell into a crouch in front of the man and tapped the knife at his cheek. “What exactly were you doing, my friend, following Giorgio like that?” She smiled and pressed the edge of the knife against the man’s face. “Mm… that’s not the right question. The right question is what were you planning to do to my dear Giorgio?”
Gritting his teeth, the man remained silent.
“You see, I have lost quite a few things recently, and I’ve been starting to think that the feeling of losing things is not fun, yes? So this is important to me, do you understand?”
“Hm. How about this? One of my friends likes reading books, you see,” Maria continued. “There is one book she read—it is quite funny—where this one character who was a cannibal, yes? He ate other people and was able to get their memories from eating them. It was a horror story, but I found it very funny.” She leaned in close and whispered into the man’s ears: “Shall I give it a try?”
Maria turned her head and found Ley, Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio storming into the room behind her. While Simon, Giorgio, and Morandi came in through the door, Ley leapt in through the window and was at Maria’s side at an instant.
Ley’s gaze flicked from the knife in Maria’s hands to the wounded man. Her eyes then narrowed from above her magenta mask, and she sank to the floor beside Maria while placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Do you mind if I try a crack at it, Captain?” Ley asked, voice barely muffled. “I used to be called a villain back in the day, so I’m sure that I might get some more out of him with just a little less loss of appendages.”
Maria considered Ley’s proposal for a moment before nodding and peeling away from the bounty hunter’s side. Ley took her place, falling into a crouch in front of him.
“Where are your bounty hunting pals?” Ley asked after a yawn. “You came alone even after you saw her tear through you guys that other night. That doesn’t seem like a very bounty hunter-like thing for you to do.”
The nameless bounty hunter glowered, but something else flickered in his eyes. What was that look? Pain—a different one than physical. That pain was of someone who had lost—
“Piscese bounty hunters don’t tend to operate in groups so I was pretty surprised when I saw you guys working together.” Ley yawned again, rubbing the tears out of her eyes. “Sorry. Tired. Anyway, that’s a pretty murderous vibe you’ve got there in your eyes. Makes me wonder if the bounty is all that’s on your mind.”
The flicker in the man’s eyes sparked into a flame and he launched himself up at Maria only to be swept to the ground by Ley who had kicked her feet beneath his own. He hit the ground with a thud and then went limp.
Ley swore under her breath and reached over to check the man’s pulse. “He’s just passed out.” She glanced at Maria. “We could use a Transmutationist if you’ve got one.” She gestured to his bleeding arm. “It’s not deep, but what do I know?”
“You really know how to take the reins, huh, my dear Ley?” Maria chuckled before she glanced over her shoulder at Simon. “No Transmutationists here!”
Ley shrugged and began to search the man’s clothing. She paused and pulled out something from the folds of his shirt. It looked like a keychain. A rather cute one of a blue mini surfboard. “Either a lead or a dead end.”
“It might be too good to be true,” Ley drew, “but there was that surfboard shop we passed by earlier.” She tossed the item to Maria. “Surfboard. Water. The Elementalist. The beast of the deep. Bounty hunters. The package. There’s too many coincidences.”
Maria inspected the keychain before swinging it by the ring around the point of her knife. “So the surfboard store is the way to go, yes?” She threw it up in the air, caught it, pocketed it.
Ley rose to her feet. “That seems the case. I think we should wait until princess here wakes up before we check it out though—”
“No, you will all stay here while I go now,” Maria said, wiping the knife off on her shirt. She twirled it around as she approached Giorgio who was hovering by the doorway and slid the thing back into his belt. “If there really is a beast out there, then it only makes sense for another beast to face it, no?”
* * *
Oddly enough, excitement was not brewing in Maria’s chest as she wove her way back through the colorful town of Hapaira. Instead, an emotion that was a bit unfamiliar to her was growing there. She couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but it was quite unpleasant—tying her stomach into knots.
At a fork in the red brick road beneath one of the town’s infamous arches, Maria paused to look left and then right. “I don’t remember which way to go…”
It was Werner!
She looked around but could not see him.
He sounded unhappy.
Unhappiness has nothing to do with this. I am advising you to think your actions through thoroughly. Going into an unknown location without the proper support is—
Maria laughed, feeling the odd knot in her stomach lessen. “Do not worry, Werner, I am strong, and I will never die.” She turned down the left path and began to wind down the narrow stone walkway there.
Everyone dies, came Werner’s thought. You should refrain from speaking out lou—
“Not me.” Maria hummed as she continued onwards. “And not you. We won’t die.” Ever. “I won’t let you.”
She reached the surfboard store not so soon after. It looked the same as before with bright colorful surfboards lining its front and seashell trinkets hanging from its extended roof. A shutter door was pulled all the way up to allow in sunlight. Upon closer inspection, Maria noticed that behind all of those displays at the very back wall was a small and narrow blue door.
After a moment of consideration, she reached out and pushed over one of the upright boards decorating the front. It crashed into the surfboard behind it which knocked into another surfboard—all in a domino crescendo. The crashes echoed through the silence surrounding her for a moment but quietness reigned in a beat after.
Hm. No one was coming through the door. That was a bit boring.
“Oh, Ollie!” Maria greeted him and threw her hands up in the air. She looked around but she could not see him either. She didn’t mind it though, as the knot in her stomach disappeared completely leaving her feeling light and pleasant as always. “Are you here to join me on this adventure?”
‘Course he is, doll. It’s hard ta ignore that kinda spirit, came Cadence’s voice drifting down into her thoughts. I was wonderin’ why I couldn’t stop shakin’ my leg. Turns out your excitement is just that infectious.
Cadence was here too! Well, that was wonderful. All that was needed was Atienna and Jericho, and it would just be like the synchronization meeting minus all the long boring talk.
“Well, onwards we go!” Maria cheered.
Maria paced up to the narrow blue door at the back of the store. When she pulled it open, she found a staircase descending downwards. While the path down was entirely pitch black, she could see a very faint light glowing from the bottom. Without skipping a beat, she dashed down the stairwell. Upon reaching the floor below, she found herself standing in a very small room lit only by a single v-bulb that swung from the ceiling. But—
Maria could feel Olive pale immediately with fear, disgust, and horror. She could even feel the chill that ran up his spine. It was an unfamiliar sensation to her.
It was Atienna, and with her came a wave of apprehension and worry. Something weighed down in Maria’s chest at Atienna’s thought. An uncomfortable weight.
There were bodies everywhere in front of them. Bodies on top of bodies. Bodies drooping over the small circular tables that dotted the space. Red staining into the wood.
Ignoring Olive and Atienna’s apprehension, Maria continued forward and glanced around. These were most definitely some of the bounty hunters that came at her the previous week. This was definitely peculiar.
Maybe they all killed each other, Cadence suggested. Like a shootout. Bang, bang.
Why would they do such a thing? Atienna pondered.
Bounty greed? Cadence tried. I mean, they are after the money.
Atienna seemed to think about this deeply. As strong and as terrifying desire is, it’s a bit strange that they would all be cooperating with another only to turn on another so suddenly, isn’t it? Even though they haven’t obtained what they’ve come for…
Well, when ya put it that way…
Intuition. The same weapon was used to kill all of them. It was Jericho, solidifying before Maria’s eyes with absolute clarity. He was crouched down inspecting one of the bodies. It was riddled with fist-shaped holes. The body beside it was too. They have similar markings. Not a shootout. One person.
Werner solidified beside him as well and gave a firm nod. I would say that a Projector did this, but these markings seem different. He gestured to a woman draped across one of the tables. She had a hole drilled straight through her forehead. Look at the singe marks of the exit holes. It’s too controlled and clean.
The one who killed your package holder Elele. Jericho nodded. “That person was an Elementalist. This is another party.”
Maybe it’s another bounty hunting group, Cadence reasoned. Killin’ off competition. And Mr. Fingerless there thought it was you, so that’s why he went after ya alone. Kinda weird for a bounty hunter though. Never thought they’d be the type for camaraderie.
Was this really about Maria’s bounty? Atienna thought. I know you have quite a strong personality, Maria, and you draw attention everywhere you go, but it’s a bit strange that the bounty hunters knew exactly where you would be… plus, we still don’t know the chronology of these events. If one event is moved slightly out of order then…
That’s a valid point, Atienna, Werner agreed.
Wow, ya both are risin’ detectives ain’t ya? Cadence snickered. Gonna give Jericho a run for his money—
‘Run for my money’—what does that—
It’s awful, came Olive’s abrupt thought.
Jericho and Werner exchanged looks.
Don’t get me wrong. Olive continued, hesitant. I get that they’re out for Maria and that they’re dangerous. But when you talk about them like that, it’s like they’re not even human. A pause. These were people.
Olive… Atienna began.
Maria noticed something black out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, what’s that?”
Sitting in the back corner of the room was a polished black crate that reminded Maria of one of the fancy cabinets she had stolen from a Cancerian estate several months prior. Surrounding it was a ring of corpses—some still clutching what appeared to be conductors, knives, and guns.
Ignoring the hesitation she felt curling in her chest, Maria strode over to the crate and popped the lid open. The interior was lined with bright pink padding, and it was filled with silk white pillows and stuffed animals.
It looks almost like a coffin… that is a bit ominous, don’t you think?
Looks like a good place ta take a nap. The container looks kinda familiar though—
There was a creak from behind Maria.
Maria kicked up a knife that one of the corpses was holding, caught it, and spun around slashing. The figure that was standing behind her, however, ducked backwards from the swing and missed it by a hair’s breadth.
Oh! Maria thought as she studied the person. That is sort of impressive—
“Geeze, Captain. It’s just me.” Ley stood idly sweating with her hands held up in the air.
“Wow,” Maria hummed, lowering the knife in surprise. “You are quite skilled, Ley!”
Skilled or creepy? Olive thought. There’s a difference.
“I’m the one who’s skilled?” Ley chuckled, straightening herself and adjusting her scarf mask.
“What are you doing here?” Maria asked. “I said to stay behind, yes?”
Ley opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by another voice coming from behind—
Maria cocked her head. Ley’s gaze focused on a point behind her. Following that gaze, Maria swiveled around.
There was something beneath one of the tables over which two corpses were draped. Rather, it was a someone. A person who was huddled there on all fours. After a beat of silence, that person crawled forward from out beneath the table and rose to a stand.
There was alarm from Werner, Olive, and Atienna’s ends, but Maria herself was simply curious because—
—standing amongst the corpses was a girl no older than twelve. Her skin was a pale white which was only several shades lighter her milky white eyes. The colors contrasted with her dark brown hair which was graced with a red bow. The bow itself reminded Maria of the ones that would be placed on top of her birthday presents back at the orphanage.
The girl turned her milky eyes in their direction. “Are you here to pick me up for Mr. Campana?” She brushed off her wonderfully expensive-looking sequined blue dress before crossing her arms. “I’ve been waiting all day, you know?”
Twin Cities, Gemini
Swallowing, Matilda pressed down on the folds of her dress and checked her reflection in the window to her left. Her hair wasn’t as dolled up as it had been that night at the Romano-Foxman meeting, and her butterfly shaped birthmark seemed even more prominent beneath the dim v-lights of the café. She couldn’t help but nervously pick at the chipping wood of the table in front of her. It wasn’t her fault, really. She hadn’t been expecting this meeting at all.
Matilda startled as her invitee slipped back into the seat across from her. She stared down at her hands. “Uh, nothing, I…”
“You seem nervous.” A chuckle that sounded off. “There’s no need to be.”
“Right,” Matilda said nervously, toying with a thread that was coming loose at the bottom of her skirt, “so why… did you… erm—”
“Do you… want to leave the city?”
Matilda froze and looked up.
The man was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater which was much different than his normal wear, but his easy smile was familiar.
Matilda’s mind raced. What was he saying? Why was he saying it? Did he want her to leave the city? Was she not doing a good enough job with her group? “Why would I want to do that? I mean, I wouldn’t find a better opportunity than this here…”
“Opportunity?” The smile began to slide from his face.
“I mean, even if I left the city, where would I go?” Matilda tried. “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to even go anywhere. I don’t think I’m on any records. And records are important, right? I mean, I know people who left the city trying to make a name for themselves, but they end up coming back here with even less than before. This is the only place for people like me.”
There was a pause. The chatter of those around them reached Matilda’s ears. It was worse than silence.
“I see. If you look at it that way, I can see how you would want to stay forever,” he said quietly. “You are very well-spoken, Matilda.”
Matilda flushed at this, and she didn’t quite know why. She was never like this around him usually. She cleared her throat. “Thank you, but can I ask why you’re asking, Mr. F—”
Her voice caught in her throat, and it took her a moment to find her words again:
“A-Are you… is everything okay…?”
“You really are well spoken…” The man gently rubbed the wetness from his eyes. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Have you come across anything strange with the items you’ve been delivering?”
The question was so odd that Matilda for a moment forgot the man’s tears. “What do you mean?”
“Items that maybe aren’t conductors or conductor parts is what I’m referring to.”
Matilda shook her head. “Were we missing some of the items we handed off? I know some of the recent deliveries haven’t made it to the drop-off locations, but I already explained everything to you…”
The man remained silent for a moment, turning to look out the window. “Your current occupation is very dangerous,” he drew, “and it’s going to become even more dangerous soon. You should leave. I’m sure the children working under you have already started to voice their dissent.”
Matilda stiffened. “I-I can take care of them. I don’t know why some of the others acting up suddenly and quitting, but I can always look for others. There’s a lot of kids like me on the street looking for some cens so—” Her voice caught in her throat again as she registered the gaze that the man fixated upon her. Something about it was unnerving. Unnatural. “Is there something wrong?”
“The only thing chaining you to your circumstances is yourself,” he murmured, rising to a stand, “and if you can’t break those chains yourself then allow me to destroy your circumstances.” He tossed a handful of cens onto the table and turned to leave. “As I’ve said, you should leave.”
Scattered among the Geminian cens that were still clattering back and forth on the table were a handful of strange black and white game pieces imprinted faintly with the shapes of stars.