The Foxman Family had its founding roots in an insignificant town in Aries. A place not even worth naming. Better to bury it. Because at the time it hadn’t been so much of a ‘Family’ as it was a ‘family.’ Frankly, in Allen’s opinion, it hadn’t been much of a family either.
The Reservoir War broke across the country a week after Allen’s birth. As his father liked to put it later, Allen’s birth was the “catalyst for misfortune.” Even now Allen wasn’t sure if the man had been referring to the war or the forced marriage that came following his conception. Probably both.
Allen hated his father to his very core. When he was young, he couldn’t really wrap his head around the feeling. As he grew older, he couldn’t wrap his head around why he’d feel something towards someone who was his father. Realization eclipsed at adolescence:
His father was a bastard with a hair-trigger temper. Whenever the man would return from the battlefront on leave, the first thing he’d do was demand that his mother hand over the stipend that came with his mandatory service which he’d spend on booze while they were left hungry. Then he’d demand a warm meal and some “special time” alone with her, leaving Allen to care for Carl by himself for many long nights.
Eventually, all of that ‘special time’ led to his mother’s third pregnancy.
At the time of Carl’s birth, Allen was too young to understand the economic ramifications that came with a new life being added to the mixture. At Francis’s birth, however, Allen understood that his mother wouldn’t be able to work in the factories anymore since she’d have to look after both Carl and Francis.
What a moron, Allen had thought as he worked the factories on an empty stomach in her stead. Just another mouth to feed. But one night when he was peering in Francis’s crib, Francis reached out for him with his small, grubby hands. Absentmindedly, Allen had extended his index finger out in turn. And when Francis wrapped his tiny little hand around that finger, Allen knew he was screwed.
Allen began to worry as he neared drafting age. He wasn’t worried about dying in the war. He worried about the repercussions of his death. What would happen to his mother, what would happen to his brothers? What would they do if he wasn’t there to stand between them and his father?
It reached a boiling point when Allen returned from factory work one day to find his father home on leave and making his presence known. His father was making work of his favorite wooden chair, beating down on Carl who was covering Francis with his own body. His mother was cowering in the corner looking away and sobbing. Without hesitation, Allen had leaped on his father, wrestling the chair away from him only to be knocked to the ground and beaten with another wooden chair. Allen at the time hadn’t been thinking about his own pain. He’d been thinking of his brothers’ pain, thinking about how no one would step in for them when he was gone.
“You were an accident,” his father had grumbled when he had gotten in enough swings, “but your brothers were a damn mistake.”
And that was more than enough.
On that cool summer night, Allen had packed his brothers’ belongings in a small knapsack. He’d snuck into his parents’ room, collected the large wads of Ariesian bills out from where his father hid them beneath the floorboards, and placed a kiss on his sleeping mother’s cheeks. After ripping a newspaper article detailing how the Twin Cities of Gemini was becoming a booming economic center from the nightstand, he’d read it over, picked Francis up, held Carl’s hand, and left that house without looking back.
It took them five v-trains and a lot of walking to reach the Twin Cities of Gemini. Once there, Allen rented a small place by the docks and informed his brothers that this was now home.
A couple days later Allen managed to snag a job as a laborer at the docks. It was cheap labor, but money was money. The boss liked him well enough and soon he shot up in the hierarchy. In between his working hours, he’d spend the time teaching Francis and Carl. School things. His brothers weren’t going to grow up dumb as bricks, that was for sure. Of course, despite all of Allen’s lessons, Carl still liked to solve things with his fists. Francis wasn’t as much of a lost cause. But neither used the textbooks to figure out how to bring more money to the table. Instead…
Sometimes Carl would beat the daily allowance out of the rich kids who would swagger through the streets pretending to be street rats. Other times, Francis would come home with pockets full of miscellaneous items like pocket watches, gold jewelry, and earrings. Allen never questioned either of them. Money was money.
One day Francis brought home an expensive-looking deck of cards. He’d said it was a gift from a friend and taught Allen and Carl a game he’d learned from said friend. That was how they started playing card games to pass the time. Even started talking about future job prospects. Opening up a shop of their own. Maybe a bar. While Allen knew the dreams were childish, his brothers’ eyes were so full of that stupid naivety that he fed into the delusions. A couple of days later, Francis brought home the regaled friend.
“She’s from Aries,” Francis had said. “Like us.”
The red-haired little girl with the freckled cheeks introduced herself as Cadence Morello and happily helped herself to their pot roast dinner.
Another mouth to feed.
But Cadence contributed more than enough to the household. She’d bring home pockets full of all kinds of knickknacks and sometimes even food. Allen never questioned her. Money was money.
Somewhere down the line, Cadence introduced them to a seventeen-year-old named Brussi. Brussi ran a pickpocketing gang of similarly-aged boys and girls on the east side of the city and had recently taken up a morrowheat smuggling job for a larger gang in the area. He’d wanted to borrow the warehouse for a couple of days to store the product in exchange for money.
It was a risk, Allen had thought at the time. He could lose his job and get fired. But then Allen had thought of Francis’s worn-down shoes, had thought of Carl’s raggedy shirt, and had affirmed a simple fact. Money was money.
“How about I offer you something better?” Allen had asked, sealing his and his brothers’ fate—maybe, Cadence’s too. “Work for me, and you can use the warehouse any time you’d like. Pay you extra too.”
After some thinking, Brussi had accepted the deal, bringing his gang into Allen’s personal fold. Their ring of delinquents grew and soon they had absorbed the entirety of the Pollux Bay. It wasn’t that soon after that that they were approached by Ricardo Romano and Bendetto.
* * *
The night Francis was stabbed all three of them had been fighting over what to do with the Campanas. Francis had left to cool his head but instead got a knife to the gut.
Allen knew they had chosen this life, and this was one of the risks that was in the contract. Going into this business without expecting an outcome like that was stupid. Still, on that night, Allen had spent over a quarter of his secondary savings getting Francis treated and another quarter of it hunting down the elusive perpetrators.
Money was money, but family was family.
After recovering a couple weeks later, Francis had politely berated him for spending so much money on him. But Allen figured he hadn’t spent enough. Because… he knew something wasn’t right with Francis after the incident. And it wasn’t PTSD or trauma like the old doc said. It was something else. It had been just a feeling at first—that something was off. It was like one of those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles Nico liked to play with Fortuna when they’d been younger. And Allen knew that for once money wouldn’t be able to resolve the issue.
* * *
And then Allen found himself captured by ELPIS and at the mercy of Francis who was playing the character Theta. Francis spouted nonsense about not being Francis, but Allen knew his brother well enough to know that wasn’t the case.
Not long after a disguised Cadence had left with the commissario’s group following their capture, the two women named Omega and Iota also left. Omicron eventually left too, leaving ‘Theta’ alone with them.
Theta spent the most time out of all the ELPIS leaders within the exit-less room. But Theta didn’t do much except read when he was there. He was shockingly—almost laughably—lethargic. He would often sit in one place for hours without moving while flipping through books. Other times, he would drape himself half across the makeshift game table, prop a book up on its edge, and continue on reading that way. Once he’d even laid across the floor.
There were only two times that Theta would show a hint of energy. The first was whenever the brats from Matilda’s gang would come. The second would be whenever Omicron would stop by.
Omicron would always bring gifts when she visited. Mostly books and food—although Francis had never been a bookworm nor a foodie. They were expensive gifts. Books hand-bound in leather with embossed pages, sometimes studded with gems. Delicacies straight out of a Cancerian five-star restaurant. Patisseries and gold-dusted dishes, all served on silver platters.
Theta accepted all the gifts graciously and spent Omicron’s visits dining with her at the board game table. They’d whisper to each other quietly, but not quietly enough for Allen not to overhear.
“You’re a ridiculous person,” Theta’d say.
“I haven’t seen you in such a long time. If I didn’t do this, then I’d be ridiculous,” Omicron would reply.
Omicron was even ‘generous’ enough to offer them the food she’d brought along. But she didn’t have the decency to untie them so that they could feed themselves. The peacekeeper—Alice or something—would refuse every single meal Omicron brought.
“It’s most likely that their way of using conductors is through conducting vitae particles in the blood,” Alice informed them coolly. “It’s unorthodox, but if that is the case then consuming that—well—I’m sure you’re able to picture the consequences of that. You’ve seen it with that Amaril person.”
That was disgusting. But given what had happened to Amaril, Allen figured the other executives and himself had already been screwed over by it much earlier, so he helped himself to the meals. It was free.
Overhearing Alice’s remark, however, Theta had said, “You really are clever. I did do that to the other executives, but I assure you that this food is perfectly uncontaminated.”
Casual conversation was rare with Theta. Most of the time, he’d only ask about the locations of their other warehouses. During the questionings, he would send the interrogated’s limbs, fingers, and sometimes even their heads through one of his flashy portals. Allen had no idea where those things went, but whenever one of the interrogated would have their head put through one of them, they’d start running their mouth immediately upon their return.
Allen, Carl, Fortuna, and Agape had yet to be subjected to the torture. Allen supposed that just meant that Theta really wasn’t suited for ELPIS.
* * *
One day a girl from Matilda’s gang whom Allen vaguely recognized stumbled into the room from the light-doors in a flurried panic. She was very small with a clean face and hair that was carefully combed. She certainly didn’t look like she wandered the streets. ELPIS must’ve been taking very good care of her, Allen figured.
Theta was the only ELPIS leader present at the time and had set his book down as the girl rushed to him. The girl was cradling something in her hands and held it to him with hopeful eyes.
“C-Can you help him?” she stammered, voice wavering.
“What happened?” Theta asked, sinking down and inspecting what was in her hand.
“Some of the boys on the street were throwing rocks at him, and he got hit.” The girl peered into his face. “Can you help him?”
Theta silently held out his gloved hands, and the girl placed what was in hers into his. It was light, small, round, feathery. A bird.
“He’s already gone,” Theta concluded without hesitation.
The girl’s face crumbled and tears began to form. “No… oh no…”
Francis’d certainly gotten rusty with his people skills, Allen thought.
“It’s nothing to be sad about,” Theta said, cupping his hands around the bird fully and concealing it from sight. “All that has happened is that this part for him has ended. His vitae will leave his body and rejoin the cycle of vitae.”
There was a soft tangerine glow in Theta’s cupped palm, and when he opened his hands, the bird was gone. Up from his open palms floated orange orbs of light. Fireflies.
“That’s the ultimate fate for everything that contains vitae,” Theta continued, the light from the insects casting warm light onto his face. “Nothing ever ends. Not really. It just becomes a part of something else.”
“So, maybe,” the girl sniffled, “in one cycle… parts of you and parts of me will be together…?”
Theta’s smile dropped slightly. “Not everything returns to the cycle, Lia… Some things are spliced out from the cycle and can never return. Once these things leave, their only fate is nothingness.”
“Do you want to become nothingness, Lia? To disappear forever when you die?”
Lia shook her head.
Theta smiled thinly and placed his hands on the girl’s cheeks. “Good. Then you shouldn’t listen when the others ask if you want to join ELPIS. Whatever color is inside of you is what makes you you, Lia. A very beautiful color. You will make whatever you become a part of very beautiful. You will paint your existence into everything.”
Lia raised a hand and clutched Theta’s. “And you and Omicron?”
Theta pulled away his hand. “The moment you choose to become ELPIS, you become nothingness. The moment your vitae becomes white is the moment you can never go back. When you die, there will be nothing of you left. Do you want that?”
Lia shook her head vigorously.
Theta reached up to wipe the remnants of tears from her eyes. “Good girl. Now, go back to the library and read those books I told you about.”
The girl nodded again, catching one of the fireflies in hand before she left the room through a glowing doorway. Theta stared at the wall after she disappeared, the fireflies still floating around his head.
“How are you able to get people to join your ranks?” Alice asked suddenly. “Since you’re so adamant about not having people join your ranks.”
Theta slowly turned, drifted over to the woman, stared down at her. “How are you able to recruit people to join your peacekeeping organization…? How are you able to call yourself a peacekeeper…? Do you think you’re keeping the peace? You ask me all of these questions without questioning yourself.”
“You must really think lowly of us peacekeeping agents,” Alice returned, “if you think we don’t question our purpose and effectiveness.”
“It’s only natural…” Theta replied after a beat. “Someone who wasn’t born in a time of peace wouldn’t have the knowledge to implement a time of peace. You can use references, but if you’ve never experienced it, it’s still impossible. It was convoluted from the very start.”
Rather than lethargic, Allen realized as he listened to Theta continue on and on, it was more like he was gloomy.
“… So you truly operate solely based off of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis,” Alice drew.
Allen had no clue what that meant. Didn’t look like Carl—unsurprisingly—Fortuna, Agape, or any of the other executives had any idea either.
“‘Hypothesis’ implies that it has yet to be proved,” Theta replied. “This is no hypothesis. It is law.”
“Laws are things that have rigorous research behind them proving that they’re true without a reasonable doubt,” Alice said coolly. “From my knowledge, that isn’t the case with the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. Hence the word hypothesis.”
Theta stared at her. “Is it customary for a peacekeeper to be this stubborn?”
“I just want to understand,” Alice amended. “Your hate for conductors, your actions, your leaders, your wayward recruitment strategies—what exactly is your goal?”
Theta considered her question with a hand on the chin. “…While our goals may be lost in translation as more people join our ranks, our end goal is to prevent the syzygy.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to anyone else. “And because of that those disgusting generator conductors and vitae reservoirs need to be destroyed… and those True Conductors….”
“The syzygy?” Alice pressed. “What is that? A religious event in your belief system?”
Theta chuckled, sounding hollow. “If we were to speak in such terms, I would call it an apocalyptic event.”
* * *
Allen first witnessed how ELPIS solved their internal arguments and issues when the commissario and Iota started yapping about what to do with their underling in the Campana family. They shouted at each other for about fifteen minutes before settling in front of the game board and playing in silence. At the end of it, the commissario won and a scowling Iota agreed to his choice.
Allen personally found it ridiculous to solve problems with a board game. It made no sense. You could be cheated out by your opponent just like that. But ELPIS didn’t seem to fill their ranks with cheaters. Surprisingly, every person who played the game seemed to play fairly and honestly, regardless of how long the game took. Even Theta played by the rules which was a unique sight to see.
* * *
“I’ll tell you where our warehouses are. The ones the other executives don’t know,” Fortuna said one day. “On a set of conditions.”
Omega and Theta were the only two ELPIS leaders present when she said this and both turned away from their board game in mutual surprise.
While Agape sent Fortuna a whisper of protest, Allen kept his mouth shut.
“I said you knew what your position was before,” Theta said, turning back to the game and moving a playing piece, “but if you’re saying such things, perhaps my initial assessment was incorrect—”
“A game. The game you’re playing right now,” Fortuna interjected. “For every game you win, I’ll answer exactly one question. It could be a question about one warehouse. It could be a question about one of anything.” She lifted her chin. “But for every game I win, you have to answer one question for me.”
Agape now looked like she was about to keel over. Carl looked baffled.
Omega chuckled airily, covering her hand with her mouth. “Are you sure about that? Only Omicron and Alpha have ever won while playing a game against Theta, and Omicron’s only won about two percent of their matches.”
Fortuna lifted her chin. “Those odds seem fine to me.”
Theta gave a hum. “Alright. It would be more reasonable to gain information this way instead of through torture. More civilized.”
“But I’d like to move the table in front of them,” Fortuna continued, nodding her head up and down the row.
This gave Theta pause. “Why?”
“Cheating,” Fortuna stated.
“If you’re cheating then my associates will be able to catch you,” Fortuna said evenly. “I’m already at a disadvantage since I’ve never played before, and I don’t want to increase my disadvantages.”
“And if you cheat?”
“Then maybe I’d even the playing field.”
A chuckle, musical. “That’s acceptable.”
Omega undid Fortuna’s bindings while Theta moved over the make-shift table, chairs, and game board. The books making up the make-shift table were mostly history books—there were multiple editions of Countries of Signum—and a handful of journals with faded and archaic dates listed on their spines.
Theta explained the rules of the game which was called ‘Itero Recino’ to Fortuna. Each side had twenty-six different pieces, and each piece could move a certain way. Eaten pieces were removed from the table. But if a player captured an opponent piece that was the same type of piece as one that the opponent had previously captured, the player received the opponent’s piece and the previously captured piece back. It seemed simple but convoluted at the same time.
As expected, Fortuna lost the first round. The first round itself lasted thirty minutes, and at the end of it Fortuna offered up information on one of the Romano Family’s higher-tier warehouses. A warehouse that even Allen had no knowledge of.
But instead of focusing on Fortuna’s losses, Allen focused on Theta’s motions. Every single person had ticks they weren’t aware of. Maybe they’d lick their lips when they did a particular action. Maybe they’d run their hands through their hair when nervous or look up when lying. In the end, a person’s habits were their downfall. And with a bit of observation and underhanded hand-signaling to Fortuna from their end, Allen figured she could probably win at least one round.
Fortuna lost three more rounds before Theta suddenly excused himself and left the room in a flash of tangerine light. Omega hummed to herself as she re-tied Fortuna to her chair, while Agape and the other executives kept silent dread. The Romano Family had divulged the location of three high-tier conductor warehouses in a span of four hours, after all. Lots of money down the drain.
Theta returned some unknown hours later but didn’t engage in another game. He did the next time though, and Fortuna lost again. Game, read, game, read. He flipped between the two as if the results didn’t matter to him. Gradually, however, the length of the games became longer and longer until they started lasting over an hour.
One day, Theta came back looking worse for wear. He stumbled in, hair dripping with rainwater, and was for once not dressed in his usual turtleneck sweater. Instead, he wore a familiar-looking suit. After drying himself off, he undid Fortuna’s bindings and they continued their game from the last time.
“What makes you think you’re so much better than us?” Fortuna asked suddenly as she ate one of his game pieces. “You do terrible things, but you justify it by saying it’s ‘necessary’ and ‘righteous.’ People like us are the same way. We do things because we view what we do as ‘necessary.’ Our intentions may be different but the results are the same.”
Theta stared at her. “You haven’t won a game yet but you’re asking questions.”
Fortuna tensed. Swallowed.
“But yes, that is certainly a valid point,” he said, returning his attention to the game board. “While you are domestic terrorists, we are international terrorists. That’s set in stone. I’ve read the articles about the things we as ELPIS have done in the past. The real question is whether or not the ends justify the means…”
He stopped short, stared up at the ceiling.
“The more I think about it, the more uncertain I become. The easiest answer would be to not think about it at all, but that would be irresponsible. Perhaps….” He mumbled something into his hand. “Yes, that’s not so bad. There’s hope in that. And hope is all that is needed. For them. Perhaps not in your viewpoint but in ours—rather, mine. But still that seems too easy…”
“What the hell is he talkin’ about,” Carl whispered beside him.
A flash of light and an updraft of air cut Theta’s ramblings off short.
It was Omicron, entering the room with two large white pastry boxes in hand. She hadn’t come around these past several days, so Allen had assumed that she’d died in a ditch somewhere.
Theta turned back to look at her. After a moment, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“We ran into that suitcase peacekeeper again,” Omicron said with a grimace. “I had to take Iota to Lambda.”
Alice’s eyes narrowed.
“That peacekeeper is dangerous. His conducting is a lot like….” Omicron muttered. “Anyways, Ophiuchus’s increased their agents here. Our gate in front of the Casa is completely blocked off. I also spent the last of your vitae in the proto-conductor….”
“I can refill it for you,” Theta replied offhandedly.
“Thanks—but I do have good news,” Omicron continued, falling into step beside him. She popped open one of white boxes revealing a collection of assorted pastries. She paused, blinked at Fortuna as if finally noticing her, and then stared down at the game board. “What’s going on?”
“Fortuna Romano challenged me to a match of Itero Recino in exchange for information,” Theta replied. “I felt a bit nostalgic so I agreed.”
“Oh… How many times have you won already?” Omicron inspected the board with mild interest.
“If I win this one, it will be ten,” Theta replied. “But she is a quick learner.”
Omicron’s gaze flicked to Allen and the rest of the executive line up before she frowned. She followed Carl’s gaze to Theta’s hand, and her frown deepened. Instead of addressing anything, however, she plucked a flaky pastry topped with glazed nuts from the box and held it out for him.
“Open,” she ordered. “While it’s still fresh.”
Theta sighed. “You’re a ridiculous person.” But he opened his mouth anyways, and she popped it in. He chewed a bit and gave a nod of approval. “It’s good.”
Allen felt the tension leave his body immediately. He shifted his gaze away from their intimacy—
“Darling, what’s wrong?!”
Allen snapped up and found Omicron kneeling on the ground beside Theta at his chair. Theta himself had a dazed look in his eyes, and his face was being consumed by red splotches. His breathing was hard, shallow.
It was all too familiar.
“I…” Theta’s face contorted. “I can’t breathe…”
“Saints, Allen….” Carl whispered from beside him. “He’s got a…”
A peanut allergy.
Theta clutched his chest and began to slide off of the chair towards Omicron. Omicron caught him in alarm and lowered him to the ground, while Fortuna shot up to a stand and took several steps back.
“C-Conductor,” Omicron stammered. “Use your conductor. We have to get you to Lambda.”
Theta didn’t respond. Merely grimaced.
Allen bit the inside of his mouth, tested the bindings Cadence had loosened for him, and tore right out of them without hesitation. He rubbed his wrists as he rose to a stand, ignoring Agapes’ gape and Fortuna’s stare, and went immediately over to Theta and Omicron’s side.
Omicron blinked up at him in a confused and panicked daze before realization flashed across her face. She raised a conductor-gloved hand warningly. Allen grabbed her wrist, and she shoved him away in response. He returned the gesture right back at her.
“Enough. It’s an allergic reaction,” Allen stated, keeping his voice even. “You want him to die or you want him to live?”
She stared back at Allen tense, glanced down at Theta whose breathing was getting shallower, and pulled her arms away from him with a nod. Allen reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small case no bigger than his palm. He flipped it open, showed her the vial labeled epinephrine and the syringe within.
Allen had the doc and Nico teach him how to use this years ago after Francis had gotten his first allergy attack back when Francis and Cadence had robbed a candy store and had inhaled their nut-filled rewards. After that incident, Allen had made Carl, Nico, and Cadence carry a case of it with them at all times, but once Francis had identified what his allergy was, he asked them to stop lugging it around. Instead, he carried one himself. “It’s expensive,” he had said at the time while insisting that Allen stop carrying one too. But Allen figured that the hospital bill for Francis would be even larger if he didn’t have one of these on him all the time. And so, he’d constantly kept one of these on his person for all these years.
Allen stared down at Theta, studied his face, met his glazed eyes, reached a decision. After swiftly filling the syringe, he carefully injected it into Theta’s thigh muscle. He sat back afterwards, pocketing everything carefully.
“Wait.” Omicron pulled the still shallowly breathing Theta back onto her lap. “What now?”
“Well, usually we take him to the hospital or the doctors after so they can make sure everything’s fine.”
“I can’t,” Omicron said, eyes wide. “I don’t have a proto-conductor with Theta’s vitae. I need Theta’s vitae in it in order for it to work, and Theta’s in no condition to use a conductor. The others…”
“Then we wait,” Allen replied calmly. “It takes a while for epi to get working. He’s still breathing and awake. Probably just anxious and confused. There’s no point in panicking.”
“How can you be like that when he’s—”
Omicron’s eyes widened. She looked away from Allen and refocused on Theta. Hesitantly, she raised her hands to Theta’s face and began to whisper things to him in a language Allen had never heard of before.
She really was in love with him.
A couple of minutes passed with them like that. Fortuna moved back to sit on her chair, while Allen remained seated where he was. Theta’s breathing gradually became even as the minutes ticked on, and some of the redness began to leave his face. He seemed to gain some of his alertness back because he lifted his gloveless hand to press against his eyes. A groan escaped from his mouth, and a grimace graced his face as he lifted his hand away.
Relief broke across Omicron’s face immediately, and she reached for his cheek again. “Darling, I—” A hand on the wrist stopped her short.
A perplexed expression folded across Theta’s face as he gripped Omicron’s wrist and studied her. And then studied the left half of her face. His eyes widened, and he immediately pulled away from her, still gripping her wrist.
“What kind of joke is this?” he asked, tone even.
Allen studied Francis for a beat before he tried, “Francis?”
The man whipped to attention immediately, eyes widening in recognition, confusion, relief. “Allen? You’re…” He released Omicron and rose to a stand as his gaze swept to those behind him. “Carl… Fortuna… and Miss Rosario. You’re all… alive.” It looked like a weight had come off his shoulders.
Out of the corner of his eye, Allen could see Carl and Fortuna exchanging looks.
Still tense and keeping an eye on the frozen Omicron, Allen stood up and jerked his head towards his youngest brother. Francis arched a brow in turn and cautiously walked over to him, scanning the room with terribly masked confusion. The bindings, the board game, the books, the lack of windows and doors—Allen knew that Francis was taking it all in and trying to make heads-or-tails of it.
“What is this?” Francis asked. “Where is this? What’s going on? Are you—”
Allen gripped Francis’s shoulders tightly, stopping him short. “Francis.”
Francis arched a brow. “Yeah, Allen, what’s—”
“Francis,” Carl snapped, drawing Francis’s attention. “You’re Francis?”
Francis stared at him. “Who else would I be?” He paused, startled. “Carl, you look like you’ve been hit by a v-ehicle. What the hell happened to your face?”
Carl’s face lit up instantly. “I knew it! I knew you weren’t some look-alike, and I knew you weren’t really with ELPIS. It’s that damn Omicron. That Manipulator!”
“… Manipulator? ELPIS….?” Francis glanced at Allen.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Agape muttered. “So you’re not Theta?”
“We’re being held by the real deal ELPIS,” Allen said plainly.
Francis tensed, frowned, the relief in his face dissipating in an instant. “What…?”
“I’m sorry, Francis, but I can’t let this go any further,” Omicron interjected, rising to a stand with a somber expression. She lifted her hand and—
—and realized that her hand was no longer gloved with a conductor. Something Allen had noticed much, much earlier. Before she could understand what had occurred, Carl burst out from his bindings that Allen had figured had probably been loosened a minute before Omicron’s conductor was whisked away. Carl lunged at the woman, tackling her to the ground and pinning her in place as she squirmed beneath him.
“Cadence,” Allen grunted, “no need to keep hiding any longer.”
There was a familiar snap. And in a burst of copper light, Cadence appeared in front of them holding Omicron’s glove conductor in hand. “Ya know, if ya go announcin’ my presence like that then it’s real hard ta do my job.” She tossed the conductor to Carl who caught it and shoved in his pockets with a sneer.
Francis ogled Cadence. “Cadence? Why are you…”
“I followed ya here, Francis,” Cadence explained. “I saw ya wanderin’ the west side by yourself. Ya looked bent outta shape, and I was worried, so I… I dropped everything and followed ya and I…” She gestured loosely around. “…ended up here.”
It was weird. Hearing Cadence say she was worried. Made Allen wonder if there was something wrong in her head too.
“West side…?” Omicron whispered from beneath Carl as she stared at Francis. “What were you doing in the west side?!”
Carl snarled, rising to a stand and jerking her up with him. “You don’t get to ask the questions anymore, you hear—”
“I was…” A perplexed expression folded across Francis’s face, and he locked eyes with Omicron from afar. “I arranged a meeting with the Campanas about their feud with the Romanos. I was seeing if I could work something out since I had an inkling there was someone else pulling the strings. I headed out with Maximillian and a couple of the other guys, but…” He shook his head. “The details are fuzzy after that.”
Allen nodded at Cadence signaling for her to take over, gave Francis a pat on the shoulder, before going over to help Carl tie Omicron to a chair. Once Omicron was bound and useless, Cadence left Francis’s side to undo the peacekeeper’s bindings while Carl, Francis, and Fortuna freed the other executives. While the others collected themselves, Allen gave Francis a rundown of everything that had happened since they’d fallen into the exit-less room.
“I… don’t remember doing any of that,” Francis said after a beat. He looked up at Allen, pale. “Allen, I’m sorr—”
Allen placed a hand on Francis’s shoulder. “Don’t get yourself in a knot about it.”
Francis nodded before addressing the others. “I deeply apologize for everything I’ve done to you all. Even if I was under the influence of a Manipulator, I—”
“Yeah, well, I think we should tie you up too, Francis,” one of the executives muttered. “If this is manipulation, we don’t know when you’ll crack and start shovin’ us through those damn creepy things again.”
“You talk a lot of talk,” Carl growled at the executive, taking a threatening step forward, “for someone who was sobbin’ out the warehouse locations just a day ago.”
“No, Mr. Etoile has a point,” Francis said. “We don’t know if the Manipulator responsible is actually Omicron. We don’t even know if the perp is actually a Manipulator. Manipulating a living being in this particular manner is unheard of… We could be dealing with a Diverger.”
Allen frowned, and he looked over to find Carl frowning too. So was Cadence.
Francis was knowledgeable when it came to people and law, but when it came to things like vitae and conducting-types, he always referred to an advisor or a consultant. Where was all this coming from? Something wasn’t right here.
“Mister… Francis, was it?” Alice interjected coolly, arms crossed as she stared down at the bound Omicron. “You’re correct in saying that you weren’t at the mercy of a Manipulator. That much is obvious. If you were, you would still retain at least some memory of your actions, and you wouldn’t operate with an independent and unique personality.”
Omicron said nothing.
“You’re still looking at Francis with affection despite everything that’s happened,” Alice continued. “Why is that? You ELPIS leaders… what is it that makes you tick?”
“I don’t care for your words, peacekeeper,” Omicron returned with disinterest before locking eyes with Francis. “But you…” Her gaze softened. “You deserve to know.”
Francis stiffened before nodding. “…Tell me then.”