Having finally come together, the six have formulated a plan to handle all of their life-staking, respective, inter-connective issues at once.
Atienna has confirmed the following: Aquarian secretary Yulia Krista is a True Conductor connected to a Specialist child named Kovich who is under the Campana Family’s ownership; Yulia accidentally murdered Kalama after mistaking Kalama for Alexei; Kovich is Alexei’s child whom Alexei sold to the Campanas; Yulia wants to kill Alexei to avenge Kovich’s current circumstances; and Werner’s Colonel Fritz von Spiel is also connected to them.
After confirming what is truly important to her, Atienna confronts Yulia in the cavern and threatens her into submission. But as the night of the plan carries on…
Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius
Atienna opened her eyes.
The firelight was crackling half a meter away, highlighting her face in warmth while leaving her back in the cold. Across the flickering flame she could see Yulia jotting away in her notebook again. The Aquarian woman’s back was facing the sleeping Aquarian party—away from Alexei.
Atienna pulled herself up to a sit, drawing the attention of Yulia who locked eyes with her. They held each other’s gazes for a moment before Yulia dipped her head and looked away.
Following their confrontation with one another at the back of the cave earlier, Yulia had agreed to step down from her attempt on Alexei’s life without question. It was rather anti-climactic, but Atienna supposed that was the desperation of connected True Conductors.
Atienna rolled her neck in thought.
Her own part in this plan of theirs was rather simple. She was to watch over Yulia and ensure that the secretary didn’t act out after Werner executed his portion of the plan. If all went well, then Atienna wouldn’t need to lift a finger.
Atienna felt a bit concerned, however, about the others. It wasn’t hard to see that their shares in this schema were much more perilous than her own. Truthfully, she hadn’t wanted any of them to take part at all. Deep down she had wished for them to take a step backwards and watch everything unfold from afar. A safe distance. Let those who were outside of them settle everything and avoid the danger. That was a choice—right from one angle and wrong from another. And the difference between that choice and averting one’s eyes was debatable.
But the people whom she was connected with wanted desperately to move forward; and Atienna had agreed with that choice personally herself months prior. She did wonder if this was considered blundering forward blindly, however. They had all unified so resolutely together that night that Atienna had decided to keep her reservations to herself to the best of her abilities. She had wanted to consult Werner about it privately later, but the lieutenant seemed to have been drawn in tightly either through his own patriotic sense of duty or through the influence of the others.
Atienna glanced behind her and found Chiamaka sleeping away quietly. Sefu was on guard, half asleep, leaning against an ice rock a little way away. Kabal was on guard over Afu somewhere in the cavern; but Atienna reckoned if he were on guard here instead of Sefu, he would do just the same.
But it wouldn’t do very well to sit here and highlight her idleness, Atienna thought to herself. She’d already finished reading the books she’d brought with her twice over already but wondered if she could approach it with a unique perspective on a third read-through.
Before Atienna could reach into her satchel for her books, however, she was joined by Cvetka who suddenly settled down beside her. Atienna assumed the Aquarian advisor had woken up earlier and had developed the sudden desire to converse.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Kovich recently,” Cvetka said.
Heart skipping a beat, Atienna turned to her.
“About his writings, I mean,” Cvetka elaborated. “That passage about valuing a person more than others and then becoming another person’s enemy as a result.”
“It’s an interesting perspective on the sociality of human nature,” Atienna drew slowly. “A rather pessimistic perspective.”
“Pessimistic or realistic?” Cvetka met Atienna’s eyes.
Something in Cvetka’s demeanor had changed since they had last spoken, Atienna realized. There was a sharp, calculating glint in the woman’s eye that had not been there before. No. Rather, it was more likely that it had been hidden away until now.
“That’s up to the reader, don’t you think?” Atienna replied with a smile.
“You’re knowledgeable, Atienna,” Cvetka said, looking away. “But as Kovich says—”
“Knowledge isn’t wisdom.” Atienna followed her gaze. Yulia.
“Fortunately, our professions as advisors don’t require wisdom,” Cvetka returned. “But I’m assuming that you are like me and only playing the role.”
Atienna’s heart skipped another beat, and she turned to find Cvetka staring at her. The woman’s gaze was intense, unwavering, un-averted.
“Why have you been avoiding me, Atienna?” Cvetka pressed. “Is it because… you know that I am a True Conductor like yourself? That is very rude.”
The Aquarian’s eyes were like pitfalls. They didn’t seem to reflect back the light from the fire due to their bottomlessness. And Atienna had just fallen into the pit.
Atienna managed to keep her composure. “Am I correct in thinking that you reached that conclusion before I reached my conclusion about you?”
“If you realized I was one only when that ELPIS member fell out from that portal, then yes. We’ve known before you’d even stepped foot in this cave.”
‘We’? It didn’t seem as if Cvetka was referring to whoever she was connected to.
“Just as we’ve known Yulia is one,” Cvetka continued. “It’s quite unexpected actually to have so many True Conductors gathered together. But as another True Conductor once told me, ‘It’s only natural that True Conductors all come together.’”
Was she referring to Veles, the rather powerful Elementalist True Conductor Maria had encountered…?
“You’re very observant,” Atienna noted, “to find True Conductors so easily.”
“It’s merely my job to search for True Conductors,” Cvetka replied. “If I wasn’t observant, then I would be in trouble with my employers.”
Atienna’s mind went to Olive’s conversation with Claire. The two princes had spoken of True Conductors who could be hunting down other True Conductors for unknown reasons and—as Atienna realized now—for unknown employers.
A cold sweat broke down the back of Atienna’s neck. “And you would not be in trouble with your employer telling all of this to me?”
Cvetka’s red lips curled upwards. “Are you under the impression that you can do anything about it even with this knowledge?”
‘Knowledge was power’—that was a naivety, Atienna realized.
“You and me, and all of the other people like us—we’re just ants to them,” Cvetka drew. “Or maybe we’re specks of dust in the air.”
“It’s very mysterious if you keep referring to your employers as ‘them,’ don’t you think? Would it be too much to ask who your employer is?”
“You could guess, and then I can confirm or deny.”
“I could… And then you could narrow down the people whom I connected with through my knowledge.”
Cvetka remained smiling.
This differed from her confrontation with Yulia, Atienna knew. With Yulia, Atienna had held the foothold, held the knowledge, the advantage. Here, Cvetka was the one who possessed all the cards. The cards Atienna wanted. Not only that but—
Cvetka’s eyes narrowed.
—this woman was clever and dangerous. Like Cadence.
“I will tell you this,” Cvetka finally said. “If this entire thing were a novel, ELPIS would merely be the secondary villain.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” Atienna finally said.
Cvetka was fishing for information again.
“Well, ELPIS is a terrorist organization, isn’t it?” Atienna returned.
“You say that, but you were being very friendly with an ELPIS leader.”
Had Cvetka had a slip of the tongue? How surprising.
“So your employer knows about the true nature of ELPIS then?”
And here, Atienna realized, she had slipped too.
Cvetka’s eyes widened a fraction, and then she chuckled, shaking her head. “It seems as if we’ve both gotten too carried away. Well, it doesn’t matter.” She hummed. “We will find all of the ones you are connected to, Atienna. But as long as you all stay in line, nothing will happen to you or to them until it’s time for the syzygy.”
So True Conductors truly were valuable to whoever Cvetka’s employer was, Atienna concluded. Up to a point.
Leona’s haughty yet merciful demeanor onboard Maria’s ship flashed through Atienna’s mind, followed by Jin’s mention to Olive about how saint candidates were allies of True Conductors.
So that was how it was.
Were the saint candidates—as Cadence liked to say— ‘end game’ then? And how exactly were they the villain here? Through machinating the mysterious syzygy? How perplexing.
Atienna’s hands itched for the answer.
Cvetka’s gaze shifted across the fire towards Yulia again. “For those who refuse to stay in line, however…”
Atienna’s gaze flicked to Yulia. “Might I ask how big all of this is?”
Cvetka reached forward and drew a small circle on the ground with her index finger. “This is Aquarius.” Cvetka drew a large circle around Aquarius. “This is Signum.” And then she drew a larger circle around it and slapped her hand down on the image. “That is the end.”
Atienna stared at Cvetka’s hand for a moment before she tried, “Really… why are you being so open to me?”
“There’s a lifelessness to you. An apathy. And I think you’re proud of it,” Cvetka said without falter. “You look down on others for caring about things like this.” She gestured loosely around the camp. “It’s unsightly to you. How people tear each other and themselves apart for an ‘idea’ they think is right. You think you’re better.”
“You speak so eloquently, Cvetka.” Atienna reflected the woman’s smile back to her. “It’s as if you’re drawing conclusions from your own heart.”
Cvetka seemed to have understood the insult as her lips twitched downwards slightly. Atienna couldn’t help but find a small victory in this.
“I just wonder if you’ll make the same choice as I did when my employers approach you—and they most certainly will.” Cvetka turned back to the campfire as the others began to stir and greet the morning. “What’s more important to you, I wonder… All I want is for myself and those I care about to be able to live comfortably until the end.”
* * *
It was near nightfall on the same day when their plan was executed.
Cvetka’s intrusion and revelation came too close to the plan’s initiation for them to revise and hold off. The time dependency of the plan also had to be accounted for; and after weighing the prominence of danger, they all decided to move forward—albeit more carefully.
Thus, Cadence kick-started the plan.
Atienna could see it all play out in the distance in her mind’s eye through a thin veil of fog as she sat once again in front of the campfire with the others sleeping around her. The guard rotation was the same as it had been that morning—Sigrid and Sefu, both appearing tired or disinterested.
Atienna had a book poised on her lap to not look suspicious as she observed the other five initiate their portion of the plan.
It was rather impressive—the way it was all coming to fruition.
Distantly, faintly, Atienna could see Cadence and Jericho successfully capture Theta. She could see Maria begin her haphazardous freeing of the Specialist children under the Campanas. And then she could see Werner stalk Fritz von Spiel from behind—
Yulia abruptly snapped up from where she’d been sleeping across the fire from Atienna. Without even casting a glance at Atienna or any of those sleeping around her, Yulia rose to a stand and paced to the back of the cave. Cvetka who was sleeping only a meter away from Yulia remained still.
After a moment of thought, Atienna rose from her bedding and followed behind the Aquarian secretary. She found Yulia facing the black-painted wall at the back of the cavern. The woman was quietly muttering to herself there as she stared holes into the black spot.
Atienna drew closer in an effort to better hear her.
“—calm down. Don’t panic. We knew this was coming,” Yulia muttered. She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Why are you running?”
Given Yulia’s lack of subtlety here, Atienna could clearly see how Cvetka had been able to deduce that she was a True Conductor. How Cvetka had discovered Atienna’s own status as a True Conductor was troubling. Atienna had little contact physically with the others, after all. Perhaps then, it had been Virgo’s leave from isolation that had drawn the attention of Cvetka and her employers. If that were the case then that indicated that Cvetka and her employers didn’t believe at all in coincidences. Which was dangerous. But there had to be more to it.
Yulia suddenly fell silent.
Werner buzzed at the back of Atienna’s head and then—
I know. Be careful, Werner.
Suddenly, Yulia sank to her knees. The woman lowered her head, hands pressing against the cold ground as she trembled. “He’s free… He’s finally free… I—” She lifted her head, a frown gracing her features. “What are you doing? You look ridiculous—” Yulia shot up to a stand. “They won’t know it was you—”
Another stretch of silence. Atienna could hear the colonel’s aggravation from Werner’s end. It sounded muddled, like an echo resounding in a cave.
“What is wrong with you?!” Yulia snapped. “He’s finally free! Why are you only thinking about yourself? After everything he’s suffered—” She suddenly took in a deep breath and continued evenly, “Calm down. You’re pulling me in—”
“What is all this shouting about?!”
A stampede of footsteps resounded from behind Atienna. And upon turning, she found a half-asleep Alexei, a perplexed Moana, a tense Sigrid, a worried Sefu, a tired Chiamaka, a frazzled Louise, and an alarmed Pi standing behind her. Cvetka wasn’t among them.
“Atienna?” Chiamaka looked her up and down. “What is going on here? Why have you left the campsite?” The Virgoan diplomat paused, staring past Atienna towards Yulia.
When Atienna followed Chiamaka’s gaze, she found Yulia staring back past her. Atienna already knew who Yulia was looking at. Alexei. Yulia’s gaze flicked back to Atienna. Atienna shook her head slowly before noticing that Yulia had already slipped on conducting gloves. It seemed as if a decision had already been made.
“One thing he was right about was that this is not fair,” Yulia drew dissonantly, staring holes into Alexei. “Why do we have to suffer just because of a choice you made?”
Alexei blanched in confusion. “What…?”
Yulia drifted forward like a ghost towards Alexei, but before she could reach him, Sefu and Sigrid stepped between them. Sigrid hovered over Alexei, while Sefu pushed Yulia back with a loose hand.
As Atienna moved forward to calm Yulia, however, a wave of anguish overcame her. It was an intense heaviness—a void—that opened up at the bottom of her chest. A feeling that reminded her of the achingly painful months following her mother’s injury.
Maria… Atienna realized, tears pricking her eyes.
And then a terrible screech unfurled from the black-painted wall. A crack appeared in pale tangerine there, slowly expanding outwards until it consumed the entirety of the black stain. A cold draft blew out from the newly formed portal and it carried an eerily familiar voice—
“There really is no hope.”
“Theta…” Pi whispered from behind Atienna.
When Atienna turned to the man, she found him staring down at her with wide eyes.
“Fix. Change,” he said. “Make up. Is what is important.”
Atienna froze. “Pi, wait—”
But Pi did not wait. With brows furrowed in determination, he darted forward and leaped into and through the portal, disappearing in an instant.
“M-Mladen?!” Alexei exclaimed a second too late.
And suddenly Louise let out an airy, giddy laugh as she too dashed forward. She twirled around and waved her hand in the air with a “Thanks for everything!” before she leaped through the portal.
“L-Louise?!” Alexei shouted, again a second too late and echoing Atienna’s confusion.
Abruptly, Yulia rushed at Alexei with a roar, tackling him to the ground and pinning his arms to the sides with both of her hands. Alexei struggled under her weight for a moment before he let out a screech of agony as his arms began to glow a gray-blue beneath her gloved hands. The next instant saw to a burst of that same light erupting physically from the man’s arms. The light solidified, taking the shape of a familiar-looking, crystalline structure that resembled a flower. The same structure that had been blossoming out of Kalama’s corpse.
Moana’s eyes widened, and she paled before her face became twisted with rage. “You—”
Atienna held her back with one arm.
Yulia had ousted herself. She could no longer frame anyone. There was no exit for her anymore. She had trapped herself.
“Do you recognize it?” Yulia whispered as Alexei wailed beneath her. “This conducting? It’s amazing, isn’t it? To be able to send the vitae particles in your bloodstream haywire just by just touch—”
Yulia was cut off as Sefu ripped her off of Alexei. She whipped around and delivered a well-aimed kick to the gut that sent him flying backwards. Sefu righted himself immediately, whipping out his conducting spear and aiming it at her.
“Sefu!” Chiamaka exclaimed. “Do not fire! This is an internal affair, Sefu!”
Sefu gave Chiamaka an incredulous look, as did Atienna. But upon further thought past Maria’s haze of despair, Atienna supposed it made sense. To Chiamaka, Virgo was the most important thing here.
Sigrid approached Yulia from behind while swinging out her own halberd conductor. “Don’t move, Yulia,” Sigrid drew slowly, locking eyes with the secretary. “This isn’t wise.”
But Yulia didn’t obey. In one swift movement, she threw Alexei over her shoulders as if he were a rag doll and placed a gloved hand over his throat. “You stop me. He dies.”
Sigrid’s eyes narrowed, but she lowered her conductor. Slowly, carefully, Yulia inched herself away from them and towards the still glowing portal. Atienna’s mind raced.
Victim, perpetrator, and circumstance—the lines blurred with motivation, past, feeling. Now that all the variables meaningful to Atienna had been removed, what was the choice?
Atienna took a hesitant step backwards.
Just before Yulia reached the portal, however, Sefu let out a war cry and made an attempt at Alexei. A brief scuffle ensued, but before Atienna could comprehend the scene, Sefu, Alexei, and Yulia fell into the light and disappeared.
Atienna started forward.
Atienna turned her head and found Chiamaka staring at her wide-eyed.
“Don’t get involved! Think about Virgo!”
Truly, that was the last thing Chiamaka should’ve said, Atienna thought to herself. But Atienna supposed Chiamaka was right in a certain light—just not Atienna’s own light. She couldn’t afford to lose someone else. Not after Maria had lost…
Atienna turned away from Chiamaka, away from the pain that crumpled in her chest, and dashed toward the portal. A hand around her wrist stopped her short just as she reached it, however. When she turned, she found not Chiamaka but Sigrid gripping her tightly.
“Bad choice,” Sigrid said.
“He’s as important to me as that clever prince is to you,” Atienna whispered.
Sigrid’s eyes widened, and she released Atienna from her grip. “You really do know everything.”
And with that, Atienna stepped through the shimmering gate—
* * *
Twin Cities, Gemini
—and stumbled out into a warm, damp alleyway.
It was her first time seeing an alleyway marked with red brick and littered with debris. It was strange not seeing vines creeping up a wall like this one, strange not seeing moss growing along the floor. The air tasted strange as well—an ashen flavor with a touch of salt. But at the same time, all of this was nostalgic.
“—do you even think of him?!”
Atienna peered down the alleyway. At the mouth there stood Sefu, Yulia, and Alexei. Sefu was sandwiched between the two Aquarians, pointing his spear at Yulia with one hand. His other hand was crystallized over with red. Yulia didn’t even seem to comprehend the fact that Sefu was standing in front of her, however, and glared down at Alexei with malice. Alexei himself was lying on the ground on his stomach and was cradling his injured arms.
Atienna immediately started towards them.
“What are you…?” Alexei whispered to Yulia from on the ground. “You’re a Manipulator, but… how can you…?”
Yulia darted forward. Sefu pulled up his conducting spear defensively but before he could swing or aim the thing, Yulia swept him off his feet with her leg and slammed her conducting gloves over his left calf as soon as he fell.
Her movements were not that of a secretary. They were the movements of a trained soldier. No doubt Fritz von Spiel’s influence.
A burst of gray-blue light flashed from beneath Yulia’s gloves, followed by Sefu’s agonized scream.
Atienna ran forward swiftly, spun around, and cracked Yulia against the skull with her foot just as the secretary turned towards her. Yulia flew back into the open street before colliding against a store wall behind her.
But Atienna didn’t pay her any mind. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Sefu’s waist and began to drag him back into the alleyway.
“M-Miss Imamu,” Alexei stammered, “w-wait—”
Atienna met Alexei’s eyes, gave him a sympathetic look, and continued to drag Sefu backwards. Alexei paled. Yulia pulled herself up to a stand and staggered over to Alexei’s side. She didn’t make an immediate move towards Alexei, however, and studied Atienna curiously.
“I warned you…” Atienna murmured as she held the groaning Sefu in her arms. “You will only cause him more pain by doing this.”
“An eye for an eye,” Yulia challenged.
“Makes the world blind,” Atienna finished the cliché line.
“Then let’s all be blind together.”
Atienna considered the thinly veiled proposal before she dipped her head. “Before you make that choice… He should be able to meet him first, don’t you think?” She glanced at Alexei. “To decide himself. It’s only right.”
“You can see it, can’t you?” Atienna continued. “He’s almost here.”
Yulia froze, wide-eyed. She then turned her attention down the road as a pair of light footsteps resounded through the streets.
Yulia Kriska is an exceptional woman. She has always contributed to the good of Aquarius: from her former days spent as a common factory farmer to her current days serving in Aquarius’s political realm. Her childhood friends say that she didn’t always cut such an imposing, straight-laced figure and that she used to be very shy. When questioned on how she conquered her ‘crippling shyness,’ she said: “Find something you will die for and dedicate your heart to it.”
Truly, her heart lives and breathes with Aquarius.Narodnaya Gazeta Issue, Yezhenedel’noye Izdaniye #87, 17 Avgust 1939