Theta/Francis prepares to sink the Twin Cities, and the streets are in chaos. Maria reels from the revelation that Conta has become Beta. Now, she…
Twin Cities, Gemini
Caporegime Donato stumbled into the dark warehouse and immediately slipped on the blood on the floor. His son, Feliciano, rushed forward and helped him up to his feet. The two scanned the dark together, noting the suited men and women splayed dead on the ground. It took them a moment to register that there was a figure leaning against a table pressed alongside the wall.
“What in saint’s name happened here?” Donato muttered, walking up to the man.
“Apparently, some man with glasses—a Conjuror—came in. Attacked the guards.” Enzo grimaced. “Took the conductors we’d stocked and those knife things ELPIS wants. His vitae was white. Makes sense.”
“And he did all this?”
Enzo shook his head before he nodded down to a dead man splayed across his feet. “Not sure. Just arrived. But my guy here started spewin’ nonsense about some ‘beast’ comin’ in here and tearin’ ‘em all apart after the ELPIS people left.”
“Like that urban legend those street rats’ve been tossin’ around?” Feliciano arched a brow.
Ignoring him, Donato ran his hand down his face. “There goes our collateral.”
“I got word our warehouses with the Specialists also got ransacked.”
Donato’s face folded. “You’re kidding me.” He tapped his leg. “My leg’s not fully healed yet!”
“Well, the kids you gave us ain’t there anymore, so the contract is null and void.”
Feliciano brushed past his father and grabbed Enzo by the scruff. “The hell you say?”
“It doesn’t really matter now.” Enzo slapped Feliciano’s hands aside. “That swindler’s already loosened her tongue to the other execs, hasn’t she? Got word from one of my covers with Ambrose and barely packed my bags in time.”
Feliciano spat and gritted his teeth. “Cadence…”
Donato pinched the bridge of his nose before placing a calming hand on his son’s shoulder. “Yes, they know everything. They brought me into Warehouse 13—part of an exchange, I don’t know. Francis was there. Cuffed, of course, and out of his mind. But then the peacekeepers came, and he got free and started ransacking the place—the crazy bastard. Managed to give them the slip in the chaos.” He frowned. “A total embarrassment.”
Enzo shrugged and drew out a burlap sack from beneath the table with his foot. He picked it up and gave it a shake, causing it to give a metallic jingle. “Well, there’s one silver lining here. That Capricornian colonel gave us a down payment in Geminian cens—”
The burlap sack abruptly fell to the ground, bursting open and spilling its glittering contents out onto the wooden floor. The coins rattled as they tapered along the wood filling in the silence that followed.
Donato and Feliciano stared blankly at the empty space Enzo had once occupied. One second he was there, and the next he was gone.
A wail of terror rang out from overhead. Upon looking upwards, Donato and his son found a pair of legs kicking and flailing above them in the darkness. Those brand-name polished shoes were undeniably Enzo’s. His upper body and the rest of the ceiling were hidden in shadow, but something was definitely up there.
While Donato stared, Feliciano scrambled forward, grabbed Enzo by his legs, and tried to pull him down. For his efforts, he was gifted several kicks to the face that forced him to release the man.
“First it was the children. Then you took away Francis. You made my Cadence sad. And then you took Conta. And you made me very, very mad.”
A sickening crack resounded from above. Enzo’s kicking became more intense and frantic as a wheeze replaced the wailing. And then—
—his body hit the ground like a ragdoll. Instead of hopping to his feet, however, he rolled around on the floor clutching his throat. On his pale skin there hidden away by his hands was a sharp, purple imprint of a hand. He scratched at this imprint, chest moving up and down fruitlessly. His face paled, purpled, blued as he scrambled onto his knees and dragged himself over to Feliciano and Donato. Donato skirted backwards, while Feliciano rushed forward with concern. The younger man was pulled down by Enzo to the man’s eye level as the older man foamed at the mouth. There, Feliciano was able to see the terror that was in the man’s eyes. The Campana had seen something up in those shadows. Something horrifying, something grotesque, something Feliciano didn’t want to see.
Letting out a death rattle, Enzo collapsed into Feliciano’s arms.
Feliciano froze and turned. “Dad—”
But the space his father once occupied was empty. Trembling, Feliciano turned his eyes upwards. He recognized his father’s shoes instantly, kicking out from the darkness above.
“I can’t forgive it…” croaked a voice. “I can’t forgive it…”
Scrambling forward, Feliciano leaped and grabbed a hold of his father’s legs. He pulled and tugged, but it was no use. His father was jerked up and away from him and into the shadows above. Feliciano fell back onto his back as something wet and warm dribbled down onto his face. He wiped it away with his hand and stared. In the gloom, he could just barely make out the color red staining his fingertips.
A shadowy figure slowly spilled down from the ceiling onto the floor as wood creaked and groaned.
“Your father is dead.”
Feliciano’s heart raced and crumpled at the same time. With a stuttering roar, he lunged at the figure only to be met with a punch to the gut. He doubled over, heaving.
“You can run away or you can face me,” the figure said slowly, wrapping its fingers around his wrist. “It is your choice. It is my mercy.”
Feliciano trembled as the smell of iron filled his nostrils. “I—”
Feliciano cried out in pain as the figure tightened its grip on his wrist until there was a crack. His knees buckled, and he collapsed onto the ground shaking.
An inhuman face peered out from the darkness.
“You hurt my Werner and my Cadence. I can’t forgive you either.”
Maria wasn’t done. Not yet. Not even close.
She tore through the city relentlessly, plucking those she deemed evil off of those she deemed innocent. She didn’t care what faction of the city they were a part of. She didn’t care whether or not they were ELPIS. She didn’t care if they were Romano or Campana. All she cared about was that she wanted to save people. Because she was strong. To confirm she was strong.
Eventually, as she whistled around through the streets, she came across a man and a woman huddled together at the dead-end of an alleyway. The woman waved what looked like a drainage pipe wildly in the air as a group of men and women wielding rifle and bladeless conductors surrounded her and her companion.
Maria didn’t wait for an explanation or for the details. She rushed forward along the fire escape, leaped down into the dark, and landed on top of the one she deemed the gang’s leader. She ended the person by shoving her blade right down their gullet. As soon as she hit the ground as the leader fell, the leader’s companions dispersed immediately. They dropped their conductors and started off into the dark in a flurry of panic. Fakes, maybe. Or maybe she’d scared them.
Maria looked down at the person who was now acting as a sheath to her blade.
A lonely death. How sad…
No. She was strong. She didn’t have regrets.
Maria looked at the man and the woman she had saved. They were dressed oddly. The woman was bundled in layers of fur coats, while the man was dressed in a crisp suit. They looked so unsuited yet perfectly suited for each other at the same time.
They were familiar to her, she realized.
And then it clicked.
It was the Sagittarian tourist Cadence had met. And the Cancerian tourist Atienna had met. Side-by-side. Hand-in-hand. Together. They stared at her wide-eyed, fearful.
“You’re True Conductors…” Maria realized. Their names came to her slowly. Hideyoshi. Louise.
“A-And who are you?” Hideyoshi stammered.
“Sh, honey, don’t talk to it,” Louise whispered to him, tightening her grip on the metal pipe. “It’s that. The monster the kids were talking about. The urban legend. The beast.” Louise dipped her head at Maria. “We do not mean you offense, Golden Beast! We are… mere tourists. Please spare us.”
They didn’t sound afraid, despite the dead man at their feet. They were definitely odd—a bit funny in the head, maybe—but Maria was in no mood to engage with them. Not when there was this gaping hole in her chest that needed to be filled.
As Maria stared at Louise, however, something else clicked in her mind. “Are you… the one Renée is looking for? The… Cancerian duchess?”
Hideyoshi stepped in front of Louise at this. “Are you in cahoots with ‘Renée’? I don’t care if you’re a beast or a demon, but you won’t lay a finger on her head, you hear?”
Something uncomfortable curled in Maria’s chest at the sight of him standing in front of her. She studied the two for a long time before she stared down the opposite end of the alleyway. “He is in this city now, yes? If you want to protect what’s yours, maybe you should leave.” She bent down and ripped her blade out from the mouth of the dead man before climbing back up the firescape.
Right. This was jealousy.
* * *
Maria’s rampage ended when she stumbled upon the body of a man lying flat on his stomach in an alleyway. His hand was extended outwards towards a plastic-wrapped candy basket that rested a meter away on its side.
He couldn’t save them either, she came to understand.
Maria slid into a crouch in front of him. She studied his face for a beat before moving the basket closer to his body.
“You were not able to reach them either,” she murmured, resting her chin on her knees. The pain in her chest returned, and she didn’t like it.
But the others were very busy, so Maria didn’t want to disturb them too much. They might leave if she did. And Maria didn’t want that.
She glanced back at the man’s body again. Perhaps, she thought, he had been lonely too. Sad. Hopeless. Unable to reach. Yes.
After another moment of consideration, she laid down on her back beside him and stared up at the sky that was afire with tangerine light.
She had met so many interesting people in the past few weeks. Veles, Renée, that angry bounty hunter, and so many others through the eyes of the other five. But despite all those new faces, despite meeting all those new and exciting people, it wasn’t enough. They could not replace the space Conta had occupied. It was not the same. Insufficient.
That meant that Maria would have to seek Conta out. Yes. To fill in that emptiness. No matter what. She could do that. Definitely. Even though she’d failed in her promise to keep Conta at her side for eternity.
Was this what Jericho felt…?
A pit-pat of footsteps drew Maria’s attention away from the skyline. Upon lifting her head and looking down the alleyway, she saw a small figure dashing down towards her. It was the blind girl, wearing her conducting glasses. The girl made it about halfway down the alley before she tripped over a stray trash bin and fell flat on her face.
Maria picked herself off the ground and went to the girl’s side. “My dear,” she said as she aided the girl to her feet, “what are you doing out here?”
“Maria!” the girl exclaimed as soon as they made physical contact. “There you are!”
Maria stared at her. “Where is Renée? Did you…. follow me here?”
“He… told me to wait some place… but there were all of these loud sounds all of a sudden… and I… I thought it’d be a better call if I looked for you. I took initiative.” The girl lifted her head and then lowered it. “It was really, really hard—I could barely see anything—but I did it….” Her eyes widened. “Did you not… want me here?”
Maria understood now. The girl had followed her from behind. Just as Conta would. And Maria hadn’t noticed. Not really.
Maria placed a hand on the girl’s head. “I always enjoy company, my dear—” She paused, studying the girl’s face. “What was your name again?”
The girl’s brows creased. “I… don’t have one… They… call me ‘doll’ or ‘girl’ sometimes. Mary, Sue, Bella. They call all the other ones like me that too.”
Maria hadn’t even realized it. And if she hadn’t realized this obvious thing—just as she had not realized that Conta was gone—how much else hadn’t she realized?
“Do you want one, my dear? One just for you?”
The girl stiffened, flushing before nodding hesitantly.
“Lita,” Maria decided, threading her fingers through the girl’s hair as the light from above lazily sank downwards. “You are Lita.”