Ophiuchus has been breached through the use of portals created by the ELPIS leader and Specialist Theta. Omicron has entered Ophiuchus through the portals in hopes of retrieving Izsak Wtorek but escapes with Alice in tow instead. Alice has been seen alive by Cadence and is being held captive in an unknown room alongside Twin Cities underground criminal executives. Still reeling from the developments, Jericho…
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
Gabrielle’s office was quiet.
Roberto had been assigned a Capricorn case regarding a financial scandal involving a Transmutationist, the country’s capital bank, and “an unsaintly amount of damned sausages.” Ferris was swamped at the Assignment Department due to the recent attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center and had to take lunch while in her own office. Wtorek Elizabeta, meanwhile, kept to the detention center. Jericho didn’t understand her. Security for the lower levels of the detention center had increased tenfold, and medical Conductors were temporarily banned from entry. There was no point in waiting there for Izsak.
All of these absences paired with Gabrielle’s continued absence left the luncheons for the past several days to just Jericho himself, Talib, and one Flannery Caertas who had started making frequent stops to Gabrielle’s office following the incident.
“Did you forget me already?” Flannery had cackled the first time she had appeared in the office after the ELPIS invasion. Her Librish accent was much harsher than Alice’s, but she continued on rapidly without care, “I’m codename ‘money bags,’ remember?” Her vibrant smile paired with her wild red-orange curls that fell just below her ears were an unusual sight.
“No, I remember,” Jericho had responded. “You are friends with Talib and Alice.”
Alice. Alice was still alive. ELPIS had Alice.
“I hope you won’t mind it if Flannery joins us for our lunches from now on, partner,” Talib had murmured with a tired smile from his usual spot.
“I don’t mind.”
Flannery grinned as she had leisurely seated herself beside Talib. “Good. That’s the spirit, Jeri. I appreciate ya. Y’keep yer head on straight. Talib here’s all twisted up about it. But you and me—we know Alice’s probably makin’ those terrorists question their life choices, ‘ey?”
Jericho thought on it. “Alice is intimidating.”
“That’s it, lad. Ya got it. Alice’s holdin’ down the fort while yer ELPIS Department gets a handle on everything. We gotta crack on, yeah?” After cackling, Flannery began to animatedly reminisce about times past with Talib. Stories upon stories. Half of them seemed too strange to be real.
It was a form of comfort.
Yes, that seemed like the case.
Childhood friends, Jericho had recalled again. That was what they were. Like Gilbert, Greta, and Werner. Like Atienna and Safiyah. Like Cadence, the Foxmans, Nico, and Fortuna.
Jericho wondered if he had something comparable to that. Alice had always said it was customary to form relationships at a young age and—
* * *
Jericho’s lunches were shorter than they had been before due to the repercussions following the invasion. He had been assigned “clean up duty” the entire week which saw to him sweeping the halls of the Serpens Establishment and nearby locations to check for and to remove any black stains sighted. He shared this duty with Talib and dozens of other peacekeeping agents. Although he and the other agents had stopped finding the mysterious black streaks on their fourth comb through of the regions, Ophiuchus wanted them to be thorough.
Jericho didn’t hate it. He didn’t like it. It kept him busy.
“It’s like they’re making you run around like headless chickens,” Olivier had muttered. It was a statement that Jericho had agreed with.
In the time between clean up duties, Jericho would initiate a synchronization with either Cadence or Atienna. There was no progress on either end. Werner repeated patience. Jericho had patience. But he had no progress.
Then she appeared one day. Correction. She was there from the beginning.
When Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with his usual sandwich four days after the incident, he found her sitting with her hands clasped together at Gabrielle’s desk. Talib sat stiffly in his usual spot on the sofa, and Flannery was nowhere to be seen.
Beneath the lights of Gabrielle’s office, her hair glittered gold and her amber eyes glowed. Now that she was dressed in the Ophiuchian monochrome suit and tie, she looked mesmerizingly stunning. He wanted to know more about this lovely person in spite of everything she had done.
No. There needed to be caution.
Werner and Maria were watching.
Jericho could feel them tapping along the edges of his mind.
“You must be Jericho,” she said. “My name is Leona. I’m the chairwoman for the ELPIS Department… I believe we may have come across each other briefly before in New Ram City.” She gestured to a spot across from Talib. “Please sit.”
Jericho took a nibble of his sandwich and seated himself.
“Why—I—it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leona,” Talib finally stammered. “I—what do we owe the pleasure? I mean, are you looking for someone? This office belongs to a chairwoman of the Assignment Department, but she’s off on a case at the moment—”
“The people I’m looking for are sitting right in front of me,” Leona informed him. “Agent Talib Al-Jarrah.” Her gaze wept over to Jericho. “Agent Jericho. I’m here requesting your assistance on a particular case.”
She knew your names.
She is a chairwoman. She has access to the agent registry.
“A case?” Talib questioned. “You don’t mean—”
“An ELPIS case,” Jericho stated more than asked.
Leona nodded, holding his gaze.
Jericho’s heart hammered wildly.
Talib did a double-take. “But, Miss Leona, we’re merely members of the Assignment Department. Is the ELPIS Department understaff—”
“I’m very aware of what department you two are a part of,” Leona interjected, folding her hands neatly in front of her. “But I am personally seeking you two out, do you understand?”
Talib exchanged a look with Jericho before nodding.
“Good. This is in regards to the case that a good portion of my department has been handling in the Twin Cities,” Leona elaborated. “I had earlier plans to request you two to temporarily offer me your services due to your particular skill sets. However, at the time, you both were handling an illegal manipulation case in Cancer.”
A missed opportunity, Jericho realized.
A dangerous one, someone corrected.
Talib leaned forward, perplexed. “You returned from the Twin Cities just to request us personally?”
A mirthless laugh. “No, I didn’t return for you specifically, Talib. I learned recently that an ELPIS leader might have gained access to Ophiuchus so I was returning to handle that. Seeing as how I’ve just arrived an hour ago, it’s clear that I wasn’t here soon enough.”
“I see…” Talib looked over at him again. “Then… do you know how—”
Leona held up a hand. “There may be a peacekeeping agent who is working with ELPIS. This peacekeeping agent in question most likely used a proto-conductor stored with the Specialist’s vitae within the establishment to allow the ELPIS leader to enter later.”
Talib stiffened. “That’s—”
“But that isn’t the topic I’m here to discuss,” Leona interjected. “At the moment, I want a Manipulator capable of manipulating multiple observational mediums long-range in order to comb the Twin Cities thoroughly. There are very few Manipulators who fit this criterion, Talib, and you are one of them. Your familiarity with the city is also advantageous.”
Talib remained silent.
“I also wanted to have someone who is more familiar with ELPIS’s movements to advise me,” Leona addressed Jericho now, her amber eyes glinting. “And your particular Specialist conducting may be useful.” She glanced at Talib who suddenly tensed. “And I’m sure, Talib, you are aware of what I mean about that.”
It’s natural that she knows, Jericho thought before the others could voice their apprehension. She is a chairwoman and head of a department. She is using me. But I will use her.
“Since we didn’t turn up any leads in the Twin Cities, I was under the impression that they had moved their operations to Scorpio since there has been activity reported there—though this has yet to be confirmed,” Leona continued. “Since a member who was formerly active in the Twin Cities has made a movement here, however…”
“You think the ELPIS member who attacked the detention center has returned to the Twin Cities?” Talib tried.
“Yes, that is a possibility,” Leona confirmed. “Of course, if I’m understanding this correctly, you witnessed the ELPIS’s Specialist’s conducting abilities first hand. So, this may not hold true. I’m simply aiming to confirm or deny.”
Jericho’s head buzzed.
“All I ask is for two weeks of your time in the Twin Cities working temporarily alongside my department. After that, you will be returned to your departments.” Leona sighed, leaning back in Gabrielle’s chair and crossing her arms. “Since this is a case from a department that is not your own, I’ll give you a choice on whether or not to accept.”
* * *
They boarded the Grand Snake Train the following morning.
Jericho sat beside Talib in their designated compartment while Leona sat directly across from them.
Jericho was unsure of how to feel about Leona. If she was associated with ELPIS then he would have to act accordingly. If she was not then… he was not sure. Maria seemed to like her but the others did not. Odd.
Although Leona continuously looked Jericho and Talib over during the beginning of the train ride, she didn’t initiate conversation. The only words she spoke were to the dining-car service attendants. In the silence, Jericho had taken out his notebook and pressed his pen to the empty page. But he couldn’t think of what to write. Or even what to draw. Eventually, Jericho put the items back into his suitcase and began to doze off to the steady clack, clack of the v-train climbing along its route.
“—give me if this is rude, Miss Leona, but I’m actually quite curious about Monadism. I’ve been thinking to be a convert myself for some time now. How often are the gatherings?”
“I’m happy that you’re considering it, Talib. It’s a very respectful and kind community. People are welcomed in from all countries.”
Jericho awoke to such a conversation. When he lifted his head from the window, he found Talib leaning forward across the table and speaking animatedly to Leona. Leona herself was looking down at him with what Jericho assumed as amusement. He wasn’t certain. He’d never been good at reading people.
“Yes, the aspect about respecting one’s Ancestors has always intrigued me,” Talib continued. “And I think that having a saint candidate who uses the Ancestors as a role model while also acting as a role model themselves is very… inspiring.”
“Am I correct in saying that there are two active saint candidates at the moment?” Talib pressed onwards.
Leona’s lips dipped downwards briefly. “I still view a failed saint candidate as a saint candidate,” she replied. “They’ve already met all the criteria. They just haven’t mustered the strength nor the capabilities to take on the role.” She held Talib’s gaze. “So, no, from my point of view, there are more than that. There’s the failed Saint Candidate of Taurus. And then there’s the failed Saint Candidate of Libra whom I’ve heard has been frequenting Ophiuchus as of late—despite her not being an agent.”
Jericho connected the dots. Flannery was a failed saint candidate. There was most likely history there. But it was not relevant.
“Ah, yes…” Talib cleared his throat, leaning back into his seat. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment. “I wasn’t aware that saint candidates had responsibilities. Well, still—”
“Are these answers necessary to become Monadic, Talib? You seem to have an intense focus on saint candidates when that’s only a fraction of what Monadism is about.”
Talib flinched. “Well, Miss Leona, I apologize if my questions are excessive. I’m just a very cautious person, and I like to touch all bases before I dedicate my heart to something.”
Jericho waited for Talib to mention the Organization but he didn’t.
“That’s not a negative trait. In fact, it’s admirable,” Leona appraised. “You remind me of a close friend of mine. They were quite passionate, just as you are.”
“I… thank you,” Talib said uncertainly.
“Enough of that. It’s about time I went over the details of this case that you should know.” Leona glanced at Jericho. “Since you’ve come to, Jericho.”
Talib followed her gaze to Jericho and nodded at him in surprise. “Good morning, partner.”
Jericho nodded back.
“You must understand this before I debrief you,” Leona said firmly. “If you are to divulge any information I am about to give to you regarding ELPIS to outside parties, you will face disciplinary action. Your Conducting License will be revoked, and you will be removed from the agent registry. Additionally, you may be tried and held in the detention center. Is that clear?”
Jericho nodded. So did Talib.
“Good.” Leona reached for her suitcase beside her, withdrew a manila folder from within, and handed it to Talib. She explained, “There are two ELPIS leaders whom I know for certain are active and have had previous operations in the Twin Cities. The first would be a person who attacked the Black Constellation Detention Center.”
Talib flipped open the file and held it between him and Jericho. A photograph of a blurred woman’s face was paperclipped to one sheet of paper within. The sheet of paper read:
ELPIS Name : Omicron (#54)
True Name : Unknown
Country of Origin : Most likely Capricorn or Taurus
Conducting-type : Manipulator
Capable of manipulating 15+ items at once
Incapable of using manipulated items as observational mediums
Requirements—blood contact with item, conductor usage
Location of tattoo : left-side of face
Threat Level : A-
Additional Notes : At least 3+ Licensed Conductors advised to engage.
Talib’s brows shot up. “Her manipulation ability is—”
“Yes, she’s much more adept than you at manipulating, Talib,” Leona agreed. “Although your talents aren’t something to be brushed aside.”
“… You flatter me, Miss Leona.”
Someone sounds like they’re tryna butter her up.
Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.
“So, am I correct in saying that the names we’re referring to them by are pseudonyms of sorts?” Talib pressed. “To possibly hide their true identity?”
“They’re pseudonyms, but they have no desire to hide their true identities,” Leona replied. She reached over and tapped the number beside Omicron’s name. “That number indicates that this is the fifty-fourth person who has taken up the code-name Omicron. There have been fifty-three others who have taken up the name before them. They share similar conducting-types despite this.”
“They must go through leaders quickly then…” Talib noted, brows raised.
Leona pulled out another file from her suitcase and exchanged it for Omicron’s file. Talib flipped the new one open and held it out for Jericho again. There was no photo this time. Just a single sheet of paper:
ELPIS Name: Theta (#16)
True Name : Unknown
Country of Origin : Unknown
Conducting-type : Specialist
Capable of a form of spatial distortion
Requirements—user’s blood marked with appropriate diameters at location of interest, conductor contact with separate blood marked area
Location of tattoo : unknown, but most likely right-side of face
Threat Level : S+
Additional notes: Do not engage.
A faded memory flashed into Jericho’s mind once more. The sandy dunes that soaked up the tears and blood. And that person who had reached out for him amongst the destruction.
Leona continued, “Theta has been dormant for some time. This marks their first emergence in years.”
“Perhaps, it’s a new ELPIS leader then…” Talib suggested. His eyes then darkened. “I’ve never seen a Conductor with that kind of ability…” He handed the file back to her. “It’s dangerous. Am I correct to assume this ‘Theta’ is one of your capture priorities?”
“Yes, that’s the case. Although, this is the first time Theta has acted out so aggressively.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Something must have changed.”
“And… that conducting we saw,” Talib continued. “And these files. They’re using their blood as if it were vitae…”
“An old form of conducting,” Jericho recalled from Olive’s book reading only minutes ago.
Leona inspected him before nodding. “Yes, we believe that’s what it is. It’s a putrid form of conducting, but I have to admit that it’s one of the reasons ELPIS leaders are so hard to capture alive.”
“They gain an advantage every time they bleed,” Talib concluded.
Leona further elaborated, casting a look towards the window: “The conductors that we use aren’t capable of performing like that. They weren’t designed that way. We have yet to obtain ELPIS conductors to assess how exactly it’s done. Of course, their lower-tier members that we’ve captured are ignorant of this blood-conducting.”
She was lying about something.
“I’m surprised by your knowledge of it, Jericho,” Leona noted. “But you must have seen it in action yourself when you were with them. Perhaps, even taught about it. Though your file states that you had very little contact with actual leaders.”
Jericho hadn’t been taught this and had ever seen it himself. He supposed he was a ‘lower-tier’ member if that was the case. But he shouldn’t let her know that. It was time to change the subject.
“Are there any other ELPIS leaders who might be in the Twin Cities?” Jericho asked. “I would like to know. Please.”
Leona wordlessly reached into her suitcase and held out two files to him instead of Talib. Jericho accepted it, opened the first, and held it so that Talib could read as well.
ELPIS Name: Omega (#91)
True Name: Unknown
Country of Origin: Unknown
Conducting Type: Manipulator
Capable of manipulating an uncounted number of objects.
Capable of using manipulated objects as observational mediums.
Location of Tattoo: Back of neck
Threat Level: C+
Additional Notes: N/A
Jericho flipped to the next file.
A clear photo of a familiar woman with wild orange hair and glowering eyes was clipped to the corner.
ELPIS Name: Iota (#67)
True Name: Iris McKillop
Country of Origin: Libra
Capable of manipulating 10+ objects at once
Tends to favor chains as medium
Location of Tattoo: Side of hand
Threat Level: A+
Additional Notes: Extremely dangerous, aggressive, violent. Do not engage unless accompanied.
Tugging the file out of Jericho’s hands, Talib stared down at the photo and paled. “She’s… that war criminal. She’s infamous in Libra. They used to tell horror stories about her back home… about how she’d drink the blood of children.” His gaze snapped up to Leona. “So she’s a leader of ELPIS…?”
Leona nodded silently. Talib returned to staring at McKillop’s photo.
“I see you enjoy reading files, Jericho,” Leona noted, crossing her legs and propping her elbow up on the armrest. She leaned into her fist. “I’ve personally read your file myself.”
“I’ve heard it’s a lengthy file,” Jericho replied.
Leona chuckled. “Yes, well… I do wish for you to find solace and closure here.”
Jericho stared at her. “…Thank you.”
The conversation lapsed back into silence, and Jericho’s eyes once again became heavy as he listened to the click-clacking and the low bellows of the train horn.
Jericho’s eyes snapped open. He winced as he was met with blinding white. The whiteness was pouring in through the windows of the train, bleaching everything of color. The compartment, the chairs, and—
Jericho turned back to face Talib but found that the man was no longer sitting beside him. Leona was no longer sitting across from him either. Jericho was alone.
“You really are a traitor.”
A familiar young girl with hair that fell to her ears apparated beside him. Every detail of her was the same as it had been all those years ago: her small hands, the mole on her shoulder, her pointed nose. And as she turned slowly towards him, a large white crack appeared at her chest that began to creep outwards completing the image of the past.
“We were going to save the world,” she said.
“We were destroying it,” Jericho replied.
The cracks along the girl’s body grew.
“We were giving people hope,” she pressed.
The cracks spider-webbed up her neck and bare limbs, but she continued to speak, “We were getting retribution.”
“I still am,” Jericho replied.
The girl’s lips turned upwards for a moment before they dipped downwards again. “Against the people who saved us.” The cracks reached her eyes, and they resembled tear stains.
“Against the people who made us their weapons.”
“We were friends.”
This was not reality.
Jericho knew this well. Alice had gone over this particular dream with him many times before, but he didn’t feel remorse in these dreams so Alice had never had the need to dissect it any further. But now something was different. Something had changed. In his chest, a gaping hole was beginning to form. A hollowness.
He didn’t understand it.
“We were friends.” Repeating that phrase one last time, the girl shattered into pieces as the fragmentation finished its course.
Jericho startled and opened his eyes. Talib hovered over him, holding both of their suitcases in hand with great difficulty.
“We’re here,” Talib explained. He glanced out the window behind him. “That Miss Leona is quite fast. She was off the train as soon as we arrived. We should catch up before the Organization can locate us.”
Jericho stared at the man blankly.
Even though the dream was over, even though reality now presented itself before him, Jericho still felt that gaping void. The emptiness.
Something wasn’t right. Something was missing.
Then it clicked.
It was Werner. His connection to Werner had been weakened to the point of almost non-existence, and a void now expanded between them. The fragmented events of what had occurred trickled down to Jericho slowly but he was only able to dissect three pieces of information from them. One, Werner had been overridden. Two, Cadence was the cause of the override. Three, Werner was injured because of the override.
Staring up at Talib, Jericho reached out to Cadence. We were friends.
And silence answered him.
* * *
Twin Cities, Gemini
The first thing they did upon arrival in the Twin Cities was check into the Abaccio Hotel. Across the street from it, police were warding off the luxury hotel there. When Talib inquired what had occurred, the police officers informed him that hours earlier a generator conductor had blown. Talib didn’t seem pleased with the answer but after Leona asked him to let it be, he promptly dropped the topic and followed her inside the hotel.
While Leona and Talib checked into their rooms, Jericho remained outside and watched the police’s clean-up work. He wondered if the commissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau—was over there directing them on what to do.
It would be very easy to go over there, search for Tau, and stab him through with his conductor if he were there, Jericho thought. Jericho could picture himself going through the motion step-by-step. No, he would have to interrogate Tau first. Get him to show him where Alice was—
A silhouette suddenly appeared in front of Jericho. Atienna. He could tell that she was sitting in that small cavern within the large cavern again. He could tell she had just spoken with Cadence. He could tell— feel —that her knuckles were raw.
“Jericho, please don’t…” she said under her breath.
He stared at her.
If ELPIS didn’t exist, this would not have happened. If their ‘hope’ didn’t push people like this then… Yes. If ELPIS did not exist, then Alice wouldn’t, then Werner wouldn’t—
“Jericho,” Atienna whispered, “please be patient. I think I might have an idea. Please, just this once, avert your eyes.”
A brush against the shoulder jarred Jericho from his synchronization. Jericho turned his head and identified a tall man with light brown hair dressed in a military uniform.
“Sorry,” the man mumbled, offering a loose wave before sliding his hands into his pockets and turning to head down the sidewalk.
“Gilbert,” Jericho realized.
Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff stopped short in his tracks and whipped his head around. The man studied Jericho, eyeing the white band on his arm, before asking, “Do I… know you?”
Jericho blinked at him and looked across the street. Gilbert followed his gaze.
“Wait,” Gilbert began, facing him fully, “are you—”
“Ophiuchian agents know every person in Signum,” Jericho said, turning away swiftly. “Have a good day.” He entered the hotel without another word, feeling Gilbert’s gaze burning his back all the while.
* * *
Their second destination after arriving in the Twin Cities was the Leonian Monadic Temple. It was located within the Monadic District at the exact point where the east and west halves of the city met. The streets within the district were clean and cobblestone. The buildings were pure white. There was not a single piece of trash on the ground, and there was not a beggar in sight.
The Leonian temple was large, consisting of a raised platform from which multiple pillars sprouted. The pillars were long and thick, supporting an extended roof that was carved with unfamiliar symbols.
The inside of the temple was dark—lit only by a cluster of candles. There were only two small stained-glass windows on the left and right inside, ensuring that the light pouring in from the entrance was the dominant illuminator. Pews lined the walls and faced towards the back of the temple. The pews were filled with a cluster of men and women dressed in familiar monochrome uniforms. Peacekeepers. Most likely in the ELPIS Department. All of them turned to stare first at Leona and then at him and Talib as they entered. Their gazes, however, lingered on Jericho, leaving him to wonder if they knew who he was.
Without addressing him or Talib any further, Leona walked forward to the back of the temple where a large, startlingly realistic statue of a faceless person stood front and center. The statue was gilded with gold bits that caught the light from the windows.
Talib slid into a pew and motioned for Jericho to sit beside him. Jericho complied but couldn’t comprehend why they were stopping by this temple. The destination seemed irrelevant to their case.
Eventually, Leona came back to them and motioned for Talib to stand. She nodded over to a cluster of peacekeeping agents whispering to one another at the corner of the room.
“The taller woman standing over there is Lucretia Long,” she explained. “She’s one of the senior agents in this department, and she’ll inform you of what you’re to do here, Talib. You’ll be working under her from now on.”
Talib nodded slowly before turning and extending a hand out to Jericho. Jericho stared down at it for a moment before accepting. Giving him a firm shake, Talib concluded with a, “See you around, partner,” before he headed over.
Jericho stared after him but then—
“Wow, this is so nostalgic!”
A pleasant buzz filled Jericho’s mind. When he glanced to his left, he found Maria’s image sitting beside him. Faintly, he could make out where she was. On a canoe. In the middle of the ocean. Hm.
“This really brings me back,” Maria continued, “to the Monadic orphanage. We even had a statue of the Leonian Ancestor there too! I used to climb it all the time!” She paused, leaning forward to stare past Jericho.
He followed her gaze.
Leona was now seated to his left. She was admiring the statue.
Had she spoken to him? He hadn’t been paying attention.
“I didn’t hear anything.” Maria hummed. “She’s interesting though, isn’t she?”
Jericho stared at Leona, trying his best to figure out what about her Maria found interesting. Leona had formed an insurrection against Maria. A mutiny. But Maria herself held no ill will.
Jericho couldn’t understand her. And she couldn’t understand him.
“We should look into the crime organizations or the generator conductors in this city,” Jericho stated to Leona. “If we have no leads.”
Leona slowly turned away from the statue, her eyelashes catching the light and glittering. She studied Jericho impassively. “… I agree with looking into the generator conductors, and I’ve already put other agents on them. I’m working with the state to increase protection over them.” A pause. “But why exactly would ELPIS target the crime organizations? What about them would bring about ELPIS’s vindication?”
Leona was staring into him. Like Alice would. Almost like reading his thoughts.
“I know, right?” Maria whispered from beside him.
Jericho realized he had slipped. If he wasn’t connected to Cadence, he wouldn’t have knowledge of ELPIS’s dealings with the Romano executives and he wouldn’t have knowledge of the Romano’s underground work which made them targets of ELPIS.
“Intuition,” Jericho tried.
Leona regarded him. “I read your application form for the ELPIS Department. It said that you believe eliminating ELPIS will bring true peace to Signum. Do you mean that wholeheartedly?”
Jericho nodded. “Yes, they are—”
“The false hope that lures people astray,” Leona recited quietly. “But that could be said about any ideology. I’m sure if you looked into Signum’s history—beyond Signum’s history—you’d find groups similar to them.”
Jericho exchanged a quick glance with Maria who looked just as perplexed, albeit intrigued.
“And you’d find groups similar to us. Sometimes they win. Sometimes we win. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the amount of guidance given, the same mistakes will happen over and over again.”
“Over and over again?” Jericho repeated.
“There will always be another ELPIS,” Leona said.
Another ELPIS. No, that was impossible. There was only one. If that wasn’t the case then—
A hand on his shoulder stopped the thought from completing its course. Maria. In the light that fell through the stained-glass windows, she was illuminated with a rose-colored glow.
“Well, you know what Conta tells me,” Maria hummed. “If you can’t find a solution to a problem even if you’ve spent a lot of time on it again and again, then all you need is a shift in perspective. Another person to help catch what you missed!”
Jericho informed Leona of Maria’s solution.
Leona gazed at him before chuckling mirthlessly. “That’s good. You have a good amount of pride. Pursue that goal to the ends of the earth. Just be sure not to look back. If you do, I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed.”
* * *
Acting on Jericho’s intuition, Leona met with several executives of the Romano Family the following day. Jericho wasn’t in attendance. He assumed Talib wasn’t in attendance either since the man had left the Abaccio to join his new team the previous night.
“Off to do long-range surveillance,” Talib had said before slipping a folded crane into Jericho’s pocket and finishing with, “but I’ll keep in touch.”
After the meeting, Leona invited Jericho over for lunch at the Gamma Geminorium. He learned here that he would be assigned temporarily as a guard for the Romano executives while she collected data about the days she was absent from the city from other agents. She informed him she would refer to him for ELPIS-related information after she’d finished and would move forward with him from there.
The first person Jericho was assigned to guard was Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family. Jericho recalled Cadence mentioning that the man handled land and collected rent for the organization.
Working alongside Jericho were two additional ELPIS Department agents who only exchanged words of greeting with him and nothing more. At first, Jericho had thought they were displeased with him because they knew of his connection to ELPIS. He later realized after witnessing them glowering in Bendetto’s direction that they weren’t fond of the crime families.
Bendetto spent most of his time in his apartment flat taking calls from unknown business partners. He had a wife who brought him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lucy, was it? She was kind and warm, and Bendetto was kind and warm in return.
Late into his shift, Lucy brought Jericho a platter of multi-colored cookies and milk. Although he wasn’t hungry, he accepted them. He was joined by Olivier as he nibbled on the treats.
After offering a loose “hey” in greeting, Olivier muttered, arms crossed, “Have you talk-talked to Cadence lately?”
Jericho shook his head. He hadn’t spoken to her since Werner had been injured. Whenever he accidentally synchronized with her, she would always say something along the lines of “I’m really busy, detective. Sorry, maybe next time” before pulling away. Was this called ‘avoidance’?
Olivier frowned deeper. “Not surprised.” He rubbed his arm. “Anything… from Werner?”
Again, Jericho shook his head. And then heaviness came to him. It was uncomfortable and suffocating like there was an anchor pulling his entire chest downwards. He knew it was not his own feeling, but he didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that it was Olivier’s feeling.
On a whim, Jericho lifted the cookie he was eating and held up the cookie platter with his other hand. Does it taste good?
Olivier arched a brow, scoffed, rolled his tongue in his mouth, and said, “Yeah, they taste good. Are you sure they aren’t poisoned or something?”
Why would they be poisoned?
Olivier scoffed again before glancing at the platter. “It’s really weird how that works. Being able to taste what another person tastes, I mean… It seems like a pretty useless thing.” He uncrossed his arms. “It’s been a while since I had any sweets. Sagittarius is surprisingly lax when it comes to that stuff.”
I can try more. If you’d like. Jericho stared down at the platter.
Olivier shifted from side-to-side for a moment before gesturing to a heart-shaped cookie. “How about that one?”
Jericho picked it up and ate it in two bites. He glanced at Olivier.
Olivier made a face. “Too much sugar.” He then pointed to a pumpkin-shaped one. “How about that one?”
After Jericho nibbled on it, Olivier gave a nod of approval. Then he pointed to another cookie.
After half an hour, the entire platter was empty, and Jericho was left feeling a bit nauseous. Olivier snickered at him before nervously urging him to drink water and milk.
Even after all the sweets, however, the heaviness eventually returned. Jericho supposed this meant that his efforts had failed. Alice would know, he thought, what the appropriate course of action should’ve been. Still, Olivier remained with him until the end of his shift.
Thus the first day and a half of the assignment passed without incident.
After his shift, Jericho made his way over to the alleyway outside the Casa de Bambolle. Not for entertainment purposes, he thought to the others just in case. For investigative purposes. When he arrived at the location in the alley where Cadence had emerged from after she had escaped her ELPIS capture, however, he found that it had already been warded off by ELPIS Department agents.
They knew what they were doing.
On the second night, Jericho was on guard over Donato and his son Feliciano. He was admitted into their lavishly furnished mansion on the outskirts of the city and was offered a plethora of refreshments. After ‘small talk’, he was taken into Donato’s home office where the man spent most of his time.
Two different ELPIS Department agents were assigned with Jericho for this shift and were already present upon his arrival. They too kept their distance.
Donato kept himself planted at his desk, going through piles upon piles of paperwork. Feliciano also kept to the office, watching with a grimace as the two other peacekeepers played cards in front of the fireplace sandwiched between bookshelves. Jericho himself began to go through the bookcases on Atienna’s behalf.
It was near the end of Jericho’s shift that Donato abruptly said, “I’m stepping out for a bit. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Jericho turned on his heels. Donato was pulling a jacket from the coat hanger beside the door. His once cluttered desk was now empty. His gait was normal, his bad leg appearing not to bother him.
Jericho watched the man leave through the door and glanced over at the two agents. They hadn’t looked up from their game. Jericho detached himself from the bookcase and followed after Donato only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. He turned and found Feliciano glowering behind him.
“Hey, Glasses, my dad said he was just steppin’ out for a bit. You deaf?”
“I am not deaf,” Jericho replied. “I am here to watch over you and your father. You were informed of this.” He stared at Feliciano. “Unless you are deaf?”
Feliciano stiffened and flinched away from him. “Creepy bastard…”
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Jericho returned.
Feliciano flushed. “You didn’t—”
Brushing past Feliciano, Jericho exchanged a couple of parting words with the other agents. He brushed past Feliciano again, picked up his suitcase from where he’d left it beside the door, and exited the office and then the mansion.
* * *
The night air was heavy and humid. Pitch black.
The mansions in this city were different from Olivier’s estate. These ones were all relatively close together, and their gated entrances met with the gray, brick sidewalk that connected the edge of the city to the heart of it.
Jericho wasn’t too familiar with these streets. He assumed this was because Cadence wasn’t familiar with them. But that didn’t matter.
Gripping his suitcase tightly, Jericho followed along the gray sidewalk in the direction of the city. The soles of his shoes squeaked against the wet sidewalk, highlighting the silence around him. The v-lamps lining the street were off, but Jericho didn’t mind it. In the distance, the active glittering lights from the city’s heart provided just enough visibility—
A flash of light suddenly burst across the street causing Jericho to stop in his tracks. He turned his head. Pitch black darkness met his eyes. But, even so, he swore he saw it. That color.
“Theta wants me to drag you back to base,” came a quiet voice from the darkness. “But I think it’s better if I just end you here.”
A high-pitched, metal click-clack, click-clack, click-clack followed the whisper, and it was paired with a rustling sound. Vaguely, Jericho could make out something writhing in the dark. It looked like a snake with an arrow-shaped head, its body twisting unnaturally in the air.
And then slowly, they became illuminated: the chains. They burned white, tips pointed, as they slithered through the night sky. A woman wearing a polka-dotted blue dress stood beneath them with her shadowed back to him. Her hand which was gloved in a metal contraption was extended outwards towards a man who was seated on the ground. Donato. He was bound in luminous chains that slithered over his body and mouth.
Donato’s eyes flicked over to Jericho as he let out a muffled shout. The woman followed the man’s gaze, craned her neck, stared at Jericho.
Jericho stared back at her. Stared back at the woman whose photo he had studied thoroughly only days earlier. Stared back at the woman whom Cadence had seen within that unknown room a week prior. Stared at the woman who had punched Carl across the room. Stared at the woman who had grabbed Alice’s wrist.
Jericho’s eyes darted to the woman’s ungloved hand that now rested lightly on her hip. There was a tattoo there. The symbol was unmistakable.
In that instant, every limb in Jericho’s body became electrified and everything sharpened into focus. The unimportant things faded away into black. There was only Iota and himself.
Jericho unlatched his suitcase, and his conductor fell into his waiting palm. He flicked it into activation, his vitae spilling out of it in the shape of a whip.
Iota’s eyes widened as the light from his vitae drained the color from her face.
“You’re…” Her eyes narrowed and she glowered at him. “You’re the suitcase bastard, aren’t you?” Kicking Donato to the side, she pointed her conductor-gloved index finger at him. “So they sent you here, huh? I’ve heard plenty of things about you from Omicron and Omega—”
“Shut up,” Jericho stated. “If you take me to Alice, I’ll let you live.”
Iota shut her mouth, flabbergasted. “Alice…? ‘Let me live’?” She barked out a laugh and flicked her hand outwards towards him. The chains obeyed her command and rushed at him.
With two quick whips of his conductor, Jericho shattered them along with the nearby v-lamps and gates that lined the sidewalk. Everything his conductor touched crumbled away into nothing. The trash bins, the gates, the gray brick sidewalk. Disintegration.
Ignoring the destruction, Jericho confirmed, “Yes. I will let you live long enough to choose your burial site.”