The night of the grand plan is afoot, and Maria is aiming to rescue the children owned by the Campanas. With peacekeeper Gabrielle and Chevalier Renee welcomed into her crew, Maria is ready for a night of excitement. At the back of her mind, however, she has a rare two worried. Conta’s aloofness after their fight. And the identity of who set the bounty on her head.
Twin Cities, Gemini
Maria opened her eyes as she stood at the bow of her ship.
She was met with a complete darkness that was occasionally broken up by flashes of colorful light reflected by smog clouds hanging overhead. Whenever the clouds would light up, the city below would also be illuminated. The skyscrapers’ reflective windows and the stone buildings that popped up between them all were a beauty to behold in front of the backdrop of light.
“What the hell happened here?” Gabrielle muttered under her breath from beside Maria. “The generator conductors…” She glanced at Maria with a frown. “I need to figure out what’s going on in the city first before anything else. We will save the children, but you need to stay put while I ring in before that.” She grimaced, squinting into the dark. “Or try to. Could really use a Conjuror right now…”
Maria turned to the peacekeeper and then back to her crew scattered around the deck. Some of them gaped at the skyline while others scanned the empty docks they had just pulled the ship into.
“Speaking of Conjurors… do you want to know what has happened to Wtorek Izsak?” Maria inquired.
Gabrielle stiffened. “I’m guessing you know who that is because of that ‘True Conductor club’.”
“Warehouse 13,” Maria said, smile faltering for just a moment as the sky was lit up by a flash of orange light. “I promise you will find what you want to know.”
Maria turned around again and found the blind girl standing right behind her. She took the girl’s hand in her own before sweeping the girl off of her feet and hopping onto the railings of the ship.
“M-Maria?” the girl stammered in confusion.
“Wait, Maria—” Gabrielle began.
Maria leaped from the railings and landed with a thud onto the wooden dock below. A pair of footsteps pounded down the platform connecting the boat to the pier a beat after; and off of the ship came two figures. Renée and Conta.
Maria blinked at Conta before chuckling. “Ay, I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist an adventure with me even though you are angry!” She glanced at Renée. “And you?”
“I cannot call myself a Chevalier of Cancer,” Renée explained, “if I just turn away from injustice.”
“Maria!” Gabrielle called out from the deck. “You can’t just charge in by yourself without—”
“Warehouse 13!” Maria called back with a wave.
The blind girl then slipped on her conducting glasses, blinked once and then twice, before gasping as she stared up at the dim sky. Maria studied her curiously.
“It’s everywhere. Vitae—I, uhm…” The girl swallowed. “I can barely make out anything. They’re just so many colors—I…” She frowned, nodding. “I can still tell you where it is. I remember.”
“Off we go then!” Maria hummed.
The girl directed them along the route to the warehouse through descriptions of steps, sounds, and smells.
“When you start to smell the pastry shop, turn left down the alleyway that smells like mildew. Yes, this one.”
“When you start hearing the canal, cross the bridge, take ten steps, and make a right.”
It was a rather fun activity, Maria thought as she wove her way through the city streets. It was like solving a puzzle. Something Atienna was sure to enjoy.
The girl, Renée, and Conta didn’t seem to think it was fun, however. Instead, they seemed to be very focused on the excitement buzzing around the streets of the city. People running this way and that way, v-ehicles soaring through the streets. If Maria wasn’t on such an important task, she would’ve stopped by to join the activities.
Eventually, the girl’s directives became more precise, and she finally said, “Down the alleyway and to the left. It should have a swinging sign in front, or… like a weathervane on top of it. It goes bang, tap, bang, tap. That’s where they keep us overnight sometimes.”
Maria followed along with the girl’s directions with a hop in her step. Sure enough, after taking a left, Maria discovered a modest brick building that hosted a rooster-themed weathervane at its top. The building was a very normal-looking one with a pair of large white doors at its front and a set of stairs leading up to it. The only thing Maria supposed was odd was that it only had two windows placed at its very top. Fortunately, there was a stack of crates pressed along the wall that stretched up all the way to one of the windows.
Maria climbed the stack deftly with the girl in tow before peering in through the window. The only source of light within came from a handful of candles that dotted the floor. Sleeping around that sparse light on thin mattresses was a cluster of around thirty children gowned in white. Around those children, a group of suited men and women stood guard.
Maria put the blind girl gently down on the crate with a grin, fluffed the girl’s hair, and pulled open the window.
“Wait, Madame,” Renée whispered from the ground below. “Should we not come up with a plan—”
Maria didn’t wait to hear him finish and slipped inside. She looked to the ceiling and spied iron support beams crisscrossing up there. After deftly leaping into the air, she grabbed hold of one of the beams, hoisted herself onto it, and began to silently stalk forward along it. She passed quietly overhead one of the suited guards.
She supposed her shadow must have caught his attention, however, because he suddenly peered up into the darkness, and grumbled, “What the hell is tha—”
Hooking her feet to the bar, she swung down, pulled the man from the ground, and up into the darkness in one movement. As he struggled in her hold, she pulled her sword out from her scabbard and drew it across his throat.
Brief stomach-churning nausea gripped her stomach, but she quickly brushed it aside.
She threw the guard back down onto a female guard who collapsed under the weight before pulling back up into the darkness.
“Intruders!” one of the guards screeched, marking him as her next target.
Maria ran above him and pulled him up into the dark with another quick sweep. To this guard, Maria gifted a swift snap to the neck before tossing his body back down onto another guard.
The children stirred below, cowering in the dimness. Ignoring them, the guards fired their weapons at the ceiling. Flashes of reds, blues, and greens from vitae rays peppered in between orange sparks as bullets ricocheted against the steel beams below her feet.
Maria laughed merrily as she dodged them all, dashed along the bars, and hoped between the bars. She scanned the floor below, selecting her next victim before swinging down and pulling him up into her territory. The gunfire and vitae fire did not stop all the while, and so she decided to turn the man into a shield. His body jerked left and right with each bullet and ray before she tossed him onto another guard. Not skipping a beat, she ran along the bars again, dipping down to pull a younger man who was firing out blindly. She pulled him up into the dark and wrapped him in her arms as she pressed her blade against his throat.
“I am the Golden Beast,” Maria whispered into his ear. “I will hunt down every single person who hears my name, yes? The only way to extend your life is by telling my story to other people because whoever hears my name last is my next victim, understand?” For dramatic effect—as Cadence always liked to highlight—she drew her tongue up the man’s face before releasing him onto the ground.
The guard hit the floor with a thud before scrambling to the doors. He fumbled for his keys, unlocked the doors, and dashed out, all while whimpering. Cold air filled the room at his exit, leaving the remaining guards to stare after him in the chill. Their expressions of confusion turned to surprise, however, when a figure eclipsed the door’s threshold. Renée.
“My, could I perhaps ask you to quiet down?” the Cancerian inquired. “You are making quite a ruckus.”
One of the guards closest to the doorway lunged at him, but in a flash of light, the Chevalier twirled a knife in hand and drove it up the guard’s chin.
Maria took Renée’s distraction as an opportunity to shop around for her next victim—a shaking, gun-wielding woman who looked as if she were about to faint. Maria pulled the woman up into the dark and gutted her, before throwing her down on one of the other guards firing at Renée.
They were not friendly people in Maria’s book, so she didn’t see it like that.
The children screamed at the sight of the woman’s body and stiffened in fear.
“Come on, children,” Renée called out in a reassuring tone. “The door is open for a reason.”
None of the children moved. Fear of the unknown. It looked as if some convincing was in order, Maria thought—
But then the blind girl joined Renée at the threshold.
“Guys, come on!” the girl shouted. “Let’s go! Don’t you want to be free? Come on, come on, come on!”
The children gasped at the girl’s appearance—at the sight of one of their own free, perhaps—before they all became electrified into action. In a herd they stumbled and dashed forward towards the exit, weaving around the guards who were still occupied with either firing up at Maria or across at Renée. One guard lunged for one of the girls dashing towards the door, but Maria swooped down and plucked the guard from the ground. She threw him up in the air while swinging from the beam with her hands and cracked him against the skull with a kick. The guard smacked the beam just across from her before tumbling down and hitting the ground with a thud.
“Hey, aren’t you one of ours?!” came a growl from below.
A high-pitched screech and wail followed the question.
Upon peering down, Maria found the blind girl being dragged to the side by a burly-looking guard. Renée was still dealing with the last two guards at the doorway, and so Maria marked her next prey. But before she could swing down and rip the man to shreds, a gunshot rang out from the dark and the burly man collapsed. Conta stood behind him, gun still billowing with smoke. In the background, Renée finished off the last two guards with two quick jabs of his knife.
Conta welcomed the trembling girl into her arms and comforted her for a moment before she peeled away to inspect the girl’s face. The girl, however, stared back at Conta wide-eyed through her conducting glasses and paled.
“Wow,” Maria hummed as she dropped from the steel beams to the ground in front of them. She clapped loudly. “That was a dazzling rescue, Conta! I am so proud—”
The girl abruptly ripped herself out from Conta’s hold and ran over to Maria’s side. Clinging to Maria tightly, the girl cowered, shivered, trembled. Conta extended her hand out to the girl in slight confusion.
Maria blinked down at the girl with the same confusion before glancing up at Conta. “What is wrong, my dear? Is it the gun? They are not very elegant, yes, but—”
“I-I saw,” the girl stammered, gripping her conductor glasses tightly with one hand. “A-As soon as I touched her, I-I saw…” She dragged off her glasses and pulled herself closer. “I-It was white, Maria. White.”
Conta’s hand dropped to her side, and her expression of concern fell flat.
“What are you talking about…?” Maria asked the girl, her eyes still trained on Conta.
The girl didn’t respond and merely buried her face deeper into Maria’s back.
Without speaking another word, Conta reached into her pocket and pulled out two items. A singular glove lined with metal, which she slipped on slowly. And a knife with which she used to slice open her bare palm.
“Captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez, you are a True Conductor,” Conta stated. “We cannot allow you to live.”
“That’s awfully mean of you to say, Conta…” Maria murmured, chuckling. “Are you still angry at me—”
Conta extended her gloved hand outwards. The blood dripping down her other hand glowed a blinding white. And then Conta jerked her gloved hand upwards, sending the streams of glowing blood hurtling in Maria’s direction. Like spears. Almost like a Projector.
Maria couldn’t comprehend the scene well enough to dodge the onslaught. The spears pierced through her right arm and left leg. One scrapped against the side of her ear, drawing blood. But she didn’t feel pain there. Instead, there was a pain in her chest. Like a cracking. Something fragile was cracking. Paired with the pain was a light in her head.
“Maria!” Renée exclaimed, starting towards her.
The white spears crumbled away into specs of light that floated up into the air. Eventually, they faded away leaving them in darkness.
“If you come over here, Renée…” Maria murmured, extending a hand out towards him. “I might accidentally kill you.”
Maria knew she never did things accidentally. Everything she did, she did because she could do it. With purpose. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. And…
“Who… are you?” Maria asked, staring at the woman before her.
“So, you are connected to someone who knows,” Conta surmised. “I am Beta.”
A letter in the original Ophiuchian alphabet.
No. That’s the wrong answer, Maria thought to herself as the world spun.
When had it happened?
“Enzo had his boys test them on a couple of poor saps,” Donato had said to Cadence in that cold room. “‘Course one managed to get away, but that’s not relevant.”
Was it then?
The Conta who had returned to the ship on that day they were to depart from the Twin Cities all those weeks ago—had that not been her Conta?
No, no. Maria would’ve noticed if it wasn’t her Conta. She would’ve.
Why hadn’t she noticed?
Conta was gone for so long, and Maria hadn’t even noticed. Maybe it was because Atienna and Cadence had suggested for her to keep her distance from Conta after their fight.
“Give Conta time,” they had said. “Let her digest her feelings.” Maria had thought that she had understood what they were saying then, but perhaps she hadn’t truly understood anything at all.
How would Conta feel if she realized that Maria hadn’t noticed she was gone?
Conta would be sad, of course. And Maria didn’t like it when Conta was sad. Being mad was better than being sad. Conta—
Conta who had always been by her side. Conta who held her hand as they ran through the grass fields in front of the orphanage. Conta who had leaped with her from the ocean cliff-side in their childhood despite being terrified. Conta who had tentatively told her in the days following Leona’s departure from their ship that she had taken Leona’s necklace because she had wanted Maria to compliment her on it. Conta who filled in Maria’s shadow perfectly.
Conta was gone?
No, that was impossible.
Because Maria never lost, and she never broke promises. Whatever she put her mind to, she accomplished. So, when she promised Conta that they would travel the world together forever, promised Conta that she would never allow her to die, she meant it. She was going to make that possible. But.
Conta was gone.
And a world without Conta was impossible.
But nothing was impossible.
“I won’t forgive you,” Maria stated calmly before pushing the girl behind her into Renée’s waiting arms.
Without skipping a beat, Maria charged at Not-Conta with her drawn blade. Not-Conta flicked her gloved hand again, sending another barrage of glowing white spears of vitae at Maria from her blood. This time Maria dodged swiftly, which prompted Not-Conta to send out another barrage. This barrage snapped Maria’s blade into shards and scratched at her arms and legs, but Maria didn’t care. She simply plucked the sharpest shard from the air and tackled Not-Conta to the ground. She pinned Non-Conta there as she heaved and gritted her teeth. It wasn’t hard to keep Not-Conta locked beneath her. Conta wasn’t very physically strong after all.
“I’ll never forgive you. I won’t forgive you. You—”
She drove the shard through Beta’s gloved hand and ripped the conductor off with the blade as the woman groaned. The sounds of Beta’s pain were terrible, but Maria ignored them and wrapped her free hand around Beta’s throat as she brought the shard back up with her other hand.
“I won’t ever, ever forgive someone who has taken something that’s mine!”
Maria drove the shard downwards but—
—was stopped by a tanned hand around the wrist.
Olive. He stared at her, green eyes wide as saucers, as he struggled against her thrust. In his background, she could faintly hear the blaring of sirens. Still, this mirage of him was oddly strong.
Think, Maria, please.
I am thinking. I am thinking that I will kill this person.
I mean, think. She was probably the one who hired the bounty hunters.
All the more reason to kill this impersonator.
But why did she send the bounty hunters?
She wanted to kill me. Just like she killed Conta—
Another roll of rage and anguish and fury overcame her, and she drove the knife downwards once more.
No! She couldn’t do it herself. That’s why she hired them! She couldn’t bring herself to! Because she’s still Conta!
Maria stopped driving the blade downwards, but Olive’s ghostly hand remained gripped tightly around her wrist.
And she was probably the one who killed them. Maybe. I don’t know. But…
A wave of nausea that she knew was not her own swept over her.
Maria, please! Olive’s eyes were wide, fearful, concerned. I don’t want you to do something that you’ll regret.
And Maria lacked regrets. But she still lacked understanding, she knew. But Olive’s feelings—those, she could understand as if they were own.
Maria squeezed the shard tightly, drawing blood. She met the eyes of the woman below her and drove the blade down again—this time, into the ground right beside the woman’s head. She peeled herself off of the other woman and stared.
Beta slowly rose from the ground, holding her bleeding hand with a slight wince. She didn’t make any moves—merely regarded Maria with an unreadable expression.
Before Maria could say anything, however, a terrible whine rang through the air. The sound resounded out from Beta’s left pocket which was now glowing a pale tangerine. Beta reached in and drew out what Maria soon recognized to be one of Theta’s proto-conductors. Its glass tube was filled with pulsating pale tangerine, liquid-like light.
Beta’s hand twitched as the glow from the proto-conductor intensified, and the proto-conductor tumbled to the ground. The glass capsule of the thing burst open with a crash, sending the pale liquid within splattering across the floor. The liquid spread far, consuming nearly a quarter of the ground before an icy wind blew out from it. And that icy wind carried a familiar voice—
“There really is no hope.”
“Theta…” Beta murmured. She cast one last, long look back at Maria before she leaped into the tangerine light and disappeared.
Maria started after her but found her knees suddenly giving way. She fell forward on all fours and stared blankly at the ground. Something wasn’t right. Her head wasn’t right. Her chest didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. This wasn’t fun anymore. No.
Maria buried her head in her hands and felt her eyes begin to burn.
What was going on?
What was going on, Maria knew, was that she had broken her promise. Her promise to Conta.
And as Maria pictured herself returning to the ship without Conta by her side, sailing the ship without Conta at her shadow, spending the nights without listening to Conta count their treasures and supplies, Maria’s heart collapsed in on itself.
No, she didn’t like this feeling at all. This emptiness—like a piece inside of herself had been sliced out cleanly, leaving a gaping hole.
And then, for the first time in many years, Maria wept.