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(A memory that changes everything and nothing.)
Shion Myosotis always had a troublesome relationship with her name. (Still did.) Well, correction: she hated her name. Because while her given name was in the language of the Hoshi Clan, her surname was so Ophiuchian. Everyone stared whenever her name was read off for attendance in school.
“Will she be on our side?” her classmates would ask. “I mean all Conductors have to fight when they’re old enough, right?”
“No way,” they’d whisper to each other. “Ophiuchus is neutral. She won’t do anything.”
It didn’t help that Shion was an air Elementalist and that her marks were always at the bottom of the class despite that. She was told constantly that she was ‘talented, but too simple’.
For instance, when her teacher went an essay she’d written about her future career goals, her teacher’d said, “This can’treally be what you want to do. Life isn’t this simple. No one will believe this or take you seriously.”
Shion had written that she wanted any career where she could make people happy.
With a shaking head, her teacher sighed. “Hopeless.”
“Being simple isn’t a bad thing,” her mother reassured her when home on leave. “In fact, choosing to live life simply is the smartest way to live it.”
“And be proud of your name,” her father would say whenever he was on leave too. “It’s proof of our history. You shouldn’t care what they think! They’re just young. They don’t know any better.”
Still, wanting to avoid all that gossiping and whispering and shame, Shion frequently skipped class—which probably didn’t help her marks—and often made her way to the bamboo forest that grew thick and tall in-between her house and school. There, as the morning fog rolled in from the north, she would fly up using her staff conductor to the hammock she’d tied between two thick bamboo trunks. She’d swing back and forth as a blackbird she’d courted with food would flutter on down to her hand.
“Just you and me, Kuro,” she’d say.
The bird would look at her in turn and chirp almost moodily and peck for food.
One day, Shion flew up to the hammock to find it already occupied by a young girl around her age. The girl had short black hair, long black lashes, round cheeks, and was dressed in the multi-layered clothing of the Seong clan. Kuro was resting on the girl’s lap and nibbling on breadcrumbs.
“Excuse me,” Shion said in Common as she hovered in front of the girl, “that’s my hammock. Er—”
Without looking at her, the girl replied, “No, it’s mine.”
“No, it’s mine… I made it.” She pointed to Kuro. “And that’s my bird Kuro! Leave her alone!”
“No, his name is Geomjeong,” the girl replied.
Shion merely held out her hand. Without skipping a beat, Kuro fluttered out of the girl’s lap and onto her extended finger.
“Geomjeong!” The girl gasped. “You traitor!”
They stared at each other for some time before the girl asked, “Do you want to sit with me?”
“On my hammock?”
“On… our hammock.”
Shion settled beside the girl.
“I’m Jin. Ilseong Jin.”
“Shion…? What’s your family name?”
“Wait… Is that a new clan or something?”
“No, I’m from the Hoshi clan. My father’s one-third Ophiuchian.”
“Oh, I know all about them.”
“The Hoshi Clan. We’re rivals then.” Jin rolled her eyes. “Your princess always sucks up to the emperor, and he always gives her candy when she comes. Like he likes her or something.”
Shion made a face. “Yeah, she’s a suck-up and always shows off….”
“You don’t like her?”
Shion winced, looked around.
“No clan leaders are gonna hear you up here.”
“She’s… She’s mean,” Shion admitted. “She says I’m not really part of the clan because I’m part-Ophiuchian… And she always gossips about my parents when they’re out serving.”
“Well, my clan sucks too.” Jin blew hair out from her face. “My sister’s trying to make the new emperor like her. So they can be together. My parents always ask me why I can’t be more ‘elegant’ and ‘pretty’ like her so the emperor will like me too. She’s only a couple of years older than me by the way.”
“Ew.” Jin nodded, looking around at the sunlight filtering between the bamboo trees. “This is a nice place. My parents aren’t air Elementalists, so they can’t find me up here. They were yelling my head off at my marks in class earlier. Like, I can’t help that I’m stupid and not-elegant. Not like you need brains or elegance when you’re out there, right?”
“Well… I’m stupid too… if that helps.”
Jin blinked at her before sighing. “They should just give money to people who score the lowest on tests. I’d be set after the war ends then…. if this war ends.”
“Wouldn’t that make people want to score badly?”
“No, the smartest one would find out how to score the lowest. It’s genius.” Jin dipped her head before squinting at Shion. “Hm… I like you. Let’s be friends, okay?”
“… Oh. Sure.”
They would meet like that every couple of days over the next several years. Sometimes they would swing and complain about their clans or their classes. Other times they would teach each other things that their clans specialized in. For instance, Shion taught Jin to fold origami paper, while Jin taught her complicated braid-work. (Those simple days were the best.)
Two nights before they were to be sent out onto the battlefield, Jin came to their hiding spot with a hop in her step. The air was cold and thin, and not a star was in sight. Instead, the dark skyline was lit up by paper lanterns lit with flicks of vitae. They painted the night with a rainbow bridge of light.
It was for a remembrance event for all of those who’d laid down their lives for Sagittarius so far in the war. One lantern, one life. Eventually, as dawn broke, all of the lanterns would be collected, and the vitae would be returned to the reservoirs.
“What a stupid tradition,” Jin would say every single year.
Shion personally found it quite pretty.
As they watched the lanterns rise up to the sky, Jin said, “It looks like the Seong clan is about to shoot up through the hierarchy.”
“And… why’s that?” Shion asked without looking away from the lanterns.
“Because I’ve been chosen to become the saint candidate of Sagittarius. The ceremony isn’t until a couple of months though. The current saint candidate of Sagittarius needs to give up the title first.”
“Wow… That’s Pema, right? From the Tārā clan?”
“Yeah, but she’s with the Bodhi Temple. As a monk. I think…”
“Oh, wow… that’s amazing,” Shion murmured. “I guess you’re too cool for me now.”
“Yeah. I am pretty cool.” Jin chuckled. “See, I don’t need to flirt with the emperor to make it big. You don’t need marks or smarts to make it!”
“Just remember me when you’re out shaking hands with the emperor and the clan leaders,” Shion hummed.
“Aw, I’d never forget you.” Jin leaned in closer. “By the way… I’ve always wondered—do you have any relatives in Ophiuchus?”
Shion shrugged. “No, my dad’s been practically excised from the country.”
“Hm… It’s kinda crazy to think about how that country’s been neutral for so long.”
“Maybe they’re the ones who’re smart,” Shion wondered.
“Aw, are you nervous, Shion?” Jin leaned forward and blocked her view of the lanterns. “Will you miss me since we’ll be on different fronts?”
Shion’s cheeks burned red in the cold but she shot back, “More nervous for you than for me.”
“Well, I’ll visit sometime. Perks of being a saint candidate… And there’s no need to be nervous. We’re lucky we were born as air Elementalists, y’know?” Jin said, grinning from ear to ear. “When we take to the skies, we’re untouchable.”
But that had been naivety.
There was no such thing as something being untouchable. Especially for an air Elementalist when there were other air Elementalists in the sky.
The Reservoir War was both blurred and etched into Shion’s memory. A paradox. She remembered blitzing through the sky on her conductor and dropping conducting grenades on small villages that dotted the mountains of Taurus and the southern towns of Aries and Gemini. They were just dots in the distance, but the screams somehow carried with the wind. She couldn’t remember, however, the faces of her juniors in the unit nor the faces of her comrades who were shot like birds out of the sky. She’d even forgotten Jin’s face until one day Jin dropped down from the clouds.
At the time, Shion’s Sagittarian-Scorpioan joint unit was taking refuge in a small Geminian town at the edge of the border that they’d taken over. Most of her unit were in the bars of the town dancing to saxophone-laden Ariesian-Geminian music. Shion was in a bar herself for a while. It was a tiny one run by a family at the top of a winding hill lined with small cottages. But the noise and brightness were too much for Shion, so she peeled out and flew herself to the roof to enjoy the night air.
She stayed up there for hours as the music, dancing, and cheering bled up from the roof below her. Only when she couldn’t feel her fingers because of the cold did she pick herself up—only to be jerked back by her braid. Reflexively, she whipped around and threw a kick. But whoever was pulling on her braid caught her foot with their other hand.
After squinting into the dark, Shion registered a woman wearing a pair of sunglasses and with her dark hair tied into twin braids. The woman was clad in the navy-blue uniform of a general—golden clasps, medals, and all. It was an odd sight, but—
“That’s General Saint of Arrow and Direction for you, Shi-shi,”
“Short for Shion. Lele short for Leo. Jiji short for Sagittarius—or Jin this time around.”
“Er… You realize that ‘shi’ means death in my clan’s language, right—”
Jin pulled Shion into an abrupt, long, and tight hug that she returned tentatively then tightly.
“What are you doing here, Jin? I thought you were in Taurus?” Shion looked Jin up and down in awe. “Congratulations on the saint candidacy. That’s amazing…”
“Not as amazing as you’d think.” Jin shrugged. “But yeah, not much happening there except constantly raiding Okör. Taurusians are stubborn as hell. Anyway, I told you I’d visit.”
“How’d you even find me…?”
Jin winked before pulling her so close that their chests touched. Then, Jin waltzed her around the top of the roof. It was a bit of an odd dance—nothing like the hopping swinging she was used to seeing in the bars. It was kind of old-fashioned. Still, it was fun. Around they went, not quite dancing to the tune below, challenging each other to take the lead. They increased their spinning until—
—Jin lost her footing and slipped right off the roof.
Shion yelped in alarm before flying down to find Jin laying in a small pool of red. Before she could scream, Jin popped up, put a finger to her lips, and turned in a circle to reveal that she had not a scratch on her.
“Chill out, Shi-shi, chill out,” Jin reassured her. “I’m built stronger now” Then she laid flat out on the ground and stared up at the stars. “This war is going to end soon.”
Hesitantly, Shion joined her. “Really…? They’re saying this war will never end.”
“Nah. Everything ends. Then it repeats because everyone wants to do their own thing. No one wants to change. Not really.” Jin shrugged. “Anyway, the reservoirs are looking good so it’s time to call it quits.”
“What does that mean—”
“After this war ends, there’s going to be an organization put in place to handle the fallout. You should join. Probably’ll be the safest place to be since we’re reaching the final stage.”
“Are you sure you don’t need to see a medical Conductor?” Shion stared. “Maybe you hit your head…”
“Hey, rude.” Jin laughed wildly before turning her head and studying Shion’s face. “But really. If you’re ever in need of a place or direction to go, you can always rely on me.”
✿ ✿ ✿
The never-ending war ended as Jin had predicted.
But Shion felt nothing. Nothing as she watched town after city after town cheer and play trumpets and horns through the streets. She wondered then if she was too stupid to understand their happiness. Giving other happiness was what she wrote in her career goals, after all; and she had technically done that. But still—nothing.
She returned to her empty house in her village that had been decimated by nightly air raids. Its walls were stripped down to the bare wooden bones and scorch marks were burned into what had once been the floor to her room. Her parents had passed much earlier in the war—one to an enemy air raid and another while in service—so there was no one to upkeep the house. Shion herself had never been in Sagittarius long enough to get a house of her own. That paired with the Hoshi Clan’s person-records being damaged made it so that this rickety house was the only proof of Shion’s existence.
Without stepping back inside, Shion blasted the house away with her conductor.
When the letter from ‘Ilseong Jin, Chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department’ came requesting Shion to be a part of a new peacekeeping organization meant to help Signum recuperate after the war, she accepted without question. She had been wandering around for a purpose for quite some time—and what better purpose would there be but to continue bringing happiness and peace to people’s lives? She was aware of her simplemindedness but thinking any other way would be too painful.
The first peacekeeper orientation was attended by dull-eyed veterans and was full of post-war tension. Back then, the Serpens Establishment hadn’t yet been named so and was still being cleaned of the bloodstains caked into the floor from the final battle.
There were only three divisions in place then: ELPIS, International Relations, and Conductor Regulations. (The criteria to join Ophiuchus was much lower back then too, and Shion was certain she wouldn’t be able to join if she had the chance to try now.) Since peacekeepers were allowed to choose departments back then, Shion selected the ELPIS Division in order to be closer to Jin—though they rarely ever saw each other.
Subsequent orientations led to more hopeful dreamers joining the ranks. They spoke about changing Signum for the better, about promoting peace and better relations, about revolutionizing all sorts of systems—the conductor system, the healthcare system, the currency system.
Their enthusiasm and brightness awed Shion.
During one of the orientations Shion hosted, she had an interesting conversation with a particularly ambitious woman named Gabrielle Law who insisted with a sly smile that she’d become the head chairwoman of Ophiuchus. Gabrielle’s companions Wtorek Izsak and Moraeni seemed to wholeheartedly believe in her sentiment. Shion felt quite inferior in the shadow of their passion and dedication. She was supposed to be their seniors, but she felt more like their juniors.
Shion encountered another peculiar young peacekeeper cut from the same cloth while passing through the newly-installed cafeteria one day. As she walked through the room, she noticed that the floor around one of the tables was littered with deformed origami animals. She approached said table and found a trenchcoateded young man sitting there and surrounded by stacks of origami paper. He seemed to be having a hard time; and since her evening was empty, she offered to teach him how to fold them.
“Oh, wonderful. You’re too kind!” He sighed. “I’m a rookie here, you see? I’ve got to stand out, so I wanted to pick something flashy as my medium. I have to send a message to the Organization! I am not a force to be reckoned with! Oh—I’m Talib Al-Jarrah by the way.”
Shion had no idea what he was talking about but she chuckled anyways. “Shion.”
Talib continued to rattle on about all sorts of conspiracies. Something about bubble blowers, another thing about radio waves, and something else about saint candidates which was when a voice cut through their conversation—
“What’s this about saint candidates now?”
A rather beautiful woman with sharp features, dark skin, and jet-black curls was standing beside their table. Something was unnerving and unnatural about the woman’s beauty. It almost felt ominous.
Talib straightened. “I—uh—” He whispered to Shion, “That’s the saint candidate of Scorpio. Manipulator. Be cool.”
“My name is Nareen,” the woman said, plucking an origami paper up from the table and folding it into a lotus flower. She signaled for Talib to hold out his hand before placing the lotus in his palm. “And I won’t be the saint candidate much longer. It’s time to hand the title to someone else soon.” Her eyes wrinkled in amusement. “Anyway, I’m new here too and I’ll be joining you in the ELPIS Department, Shion.”
“We’ll be working together then,” Shion said warmly before pausing. “How did you know that I—”
Nareen giggled before excusing herself and departing.
Not soon after, another woman joined them at their table at Talib’s beckon—“Oh, Alice, come meet Shion!”
A young woman with long blonde hair, red square glasses, and cool blue eyes sat down beside Talib. As soon as their gazes met, Shion’s heart skipped a beat. She felt like the woman could hear her thoughts.
“This is Shion,” Talib sang. “She’s with the ELPIS Department—can you believe that? We’re practically in the presence of a celebrity!” He then gestured to Alice. “This is my good acquaintance: Alice Kingsley.”
“It’s a pleasure, Shion,” Alice greeted her cordially. “I’m with the new Psychological Evaluations Department.” After a pause, she studied Shion’s face. “Have you been down to visit us yet? I haven’t seen you around.”
Instead of answering, Shion politely excused herself.
After all, letters from the Psychological Evaluations Department would pile up in front of her apartment all the time. Shion wondered if they would disbar her from the ELPIS Department if she kept ignoring them.
But what would she even tell them? That she would ride herself up high above the Serpens Establishment every weekend? That she would stay up there for hours—so long that the local blackbirds would flock to her—daring herself to just take one step off? No, no, she didn’t want to trouble them with that. Besides, she could never take that last step—probably because of Jin, the only person who would know if she was gone.
One day, a month later, however, she tried something other than a leap from the sky. She tied a piece of rough rope to the fan in her apartment, stood up on a chair, and slipped her head through the noose. Taking one last swig of her bottle of booze, she kicked herself off the chair.
A couple of hours later, Shion awoke to find that the rope had snapped under her weight.
That was when the voices started.
✿ ✿ ✿
The first one Shion encountered was a young boy with sun-kissed skin and a smile that went from ear-to-ear. They ‘crossed paths’ when she’d been on assignment tracking down remnants of a particularly violent ELPIS sect in a Scorpioan city. The boy appeared before her as she finished rendering an ELPIS member unconscious via air vacuum in a sun-bleached alleyway.
“You’re hurting him!” The boy cried.
At the time, she thought that he’d been sucked into the vacuum too, so she lunged for him in a panic, only to pass right through him. When she picked herself off the ground after, she turned to find him crouched in front of the unconscious ELPIS member.
“He’s okay…?” he mumbled.
Brightening at this, he labeled her a ‘vitae spectral light phenomenon,’ before rattling off about the strangest things—conductor parts, conductor generators, and the like.
Shion could only stare and wonder, ‘how did this five-year-old know such big words?’ and ‘was this boy even real?’
“Olivier Chance,” the boy eventually introduced himself, chest puffed out gallantly. “Ariesian prince.”
Ariesian prince? She had almost been put on an operation to assassinate him back during the war.
“Ha-ha,” was all Shion said, since she was certain she was losing her mind.
The second one Shion encountered was a young, freckled girl with wild copper hair that went down to her elbows. Shion encountered her when wandering that same Scorpion city not too long after the encounter with the supposed prince.
The cheeky ginger girl dipped her fingers into Shion’s pants before darting down an alleyway. Shion ran after her but eventually realized her wallet was still in her pocket. Still, she continued giving chase. Once she caught the girl and pulled her to the side, the girl immediately burst out into tears.
“I-I’m just so hungry,” the girl sobbed. “I don’t know what else to do.”
And Shion felt the girl’s hunger as if it were her own and sympathy stirred in her chest. She placed a hand on the girl’s head and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Cadence…” the girl mumbled. “Cadence Morello.”
“Okay, Cadence. Well, stealing isn’t good, okay? How about I buy you something instead—”
Hah. Hook, line, sinker. Stupid broad.
Shion recoiled, then glared. “What did you just call me?”
Cadence stiffened. Damn, did I say that out loud?
Shion both nodded and shook her head at once.
In response, Cadence darted away. But Shion didn’t bother chasing her again.
⚘ ⚘ ⚘
The third one was an adolescent with platinum blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. At this point, Shion was getting the hang of it. And so, despite their first encounter consisting of him aiming a rifle conductor right at her, she flinched—mind racing to the time when she’d encountered the same in the war from a Capricornian infiltrator—but didn’t retaliate. Instead, she turned her head and noticed the target range behind her.
“This area is restricted to students at the academy,” he informed her coolly after lowering the weapon. Not even a hint of surprise. “If you don’t have permission to be here, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“I… don’t think I’m actually ‘here’,” Shion responded cautiously. “Do you know what I mean?”
His eyes widened before he scanned the area stiffly. Then, without another word, he unloaded his rifle, cleaned it, and turned on his heels.
Calm down. That isn’t real. Don’t address it—
That should be what I’m thinking, she thought.
The adolescent stiffened and turned to stare at her before resuming his brisk retreat.
Somehow, despite no introduction being made, Shion knew his name was Werner Waltz.
⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘
The fourth one Shion at first doubted was even human. She was investigating the docks in Gemini in search of signs of illegally modified conductor manufacturing when she stumbled across the girl hanging upside down from a metal crane. The girl’s eyes were emerald green, and her beaming smile lit up the night:
“Are you a spirit or a fairy?”
Shion screamed, falling backwards.
The girl continued: “Like a Capricornian fairy, yes? Like Werner!”
“Hm…” The girl tilted her head, studying Shion. “No… You seem like a spirit to me.”
“Okay, and what would that make you?”
The girl beamed. “Just Maria—an adventurer!”
⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘
The fifth one was a curious adolescent whom Shion stumbled upon while looking over files in her cubicle in the ELPIS Department. A glimpse of green danced out of the corner of her eyes; and upon turning, Shion found a young girl curled up on the floor with a book on her lap. If anything, Shion figured she looked like a fairy.
“And who would you be?” the girl started first, before chuckling. “And I assure you, I’m not a fairy.”
“Shion Myosotis… And that would be Shion for ‘I won’t forget you’ in the Hoshi Clan’s flower language. And ‘Myosotis’ is the Ophiuchian word for the forget-me-not flowers—or scorpion grass—right?”
Shion, no longer too alarmed by these appearances, smiled. “Oh, wow. You know everything, don’t you?
“I’m trying to,” was the girl’s response paired with a faint, cheeky grin. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Myosotis. My name is Atienna Imamu. Ah—have you met Jericho yet?”
⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘
The final one was barely out of pre-adolescence. And instead of stumbling upon him like she did the others, Shion actively searched for him. She ‘found’ him in a small white room with nothing in it besides a mattress and a cushioned desk. His arm was slung in a cast, and he sat at the center of the room staring at nothing.
When she first registered him, she froze and flushed because she physically herself had just stepped out of her bath and only had a towel on. She hadn’t thought that reaching out to him would actually work. And so it took a moment due to her flustered embarrassment to realize that he was in one of the containment rooms the ELPIS Department used.
“Peacekeeper.” The boy glowered, launching himself at her as soon as he registered her—and passing right through her. He crashed with a crack against the wall behind her but immediately picked himself up and threw himself at her again, passed through her, and hit the floor.
Pain jolted through Shion’s body at the impact, but the boy himself didn’t feel it—somehow Shion could tell. So without skipping a beat, the boy scrambled to his feet and prepared to throw himself at her again. She tried to reassure him that she wasn’t a bad guy, but he’d simply said—
“There are no good peacekeepers.”
Shion tried to switch gears: “Er. Do you know Atienna?”
Jericho hesitated. “Yes. Atienna. She likes flowers.”
“Well, Atienna and I are friends, okay?”
“And because Atienna and I are friends, we should be friends too, okay?”
Surprisingly, Jericho nodded. “Okay. Since it’s customary.”
And upon checking through the ELPIS Department’s arrest records later that week, Shion found a document recording a recent engagement with an ELPIS sect that indoctrinated young children from villages they raided. According to the report, an adolescent with bleached vitae was found alone in an empty conductor generator facility. He didn’t resist arrest and only recently showed aggression. The peacekeepers on the assignment didn’t quite know what to do with him, so they’d been keeping him here.
⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ❀ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘
They finally all converged together on a sunny summer day at Olive’s sudden beckoning. He pulled them into his square backyard garden that was filled to the brim with exotic plants and was even graced with a fountain. The cicadas were crying that day, and butterflies were bathing in the sunlight on the flowers.
Upon ‘arrival,’ Werner tried to make an immediate exit while muttering that he “hadn’t been getting the appropriate amount of sleep.” Before he could make a full escape, however, Olive bounded over to him and wrapped in a vice-like hug.
“Wait, no!” Olive cried. “Mr. Tall-tree-man, please don’t go!”
Werner stared down at Olive incredulously and incredibly remained still. Maria bounced around the garden in the meantime, while Atienna inspected the floral displays. Cadence hid behind the fountain, while Jericho watched on blankly.
“Hey, let’s all calm down now,” Shion said, mustering all the gusto she had and putting on a false show of confidence. An act. Pretend. “Look. Something’s happening to us, so we need to work together to figure out what. Okay?”
It took a while, but with Atienna’s and Werner’s help, Shion got everyone and everything in order. They all introduced themselves formally with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“Synchronization,” Shion said at the end, “like a clock. We’re all aligned for some reason. So… er… Let’s work this out, okay?” For leverage, she tapped against her Ophiuchian sash. “You can trust me.”
Embarrassingly, Werner was the only one who took her authority seriously. Atienna merely smiled on with an amusement that seemed beyond her years, while Maria laughed merrily without any clue about what a peacekeeper was. Cadence began looking nervously for an exit, while Jericho glowered. Olive just looked confused.
They—rather, Shion herself, Atienna, and Werner—then discussed their situations thoroughly. They condensed everything into ‘overrides,’ ‘synchronization,’ ‘shared memories, feelings, thoughts, pain’, and ‘near-death catalyst’—and even toyed with the idea of the Vitae-Anima Hypothesis.
Shion knew she wasn’t the brightest, but she could tell that this was a dangerous situation. She was lucky enough that the six of them hadn’t been old enough to serve in the war. Half of them were from countries she’d completely ravaged with her own hands. Wartime animosity and whatever this was wouldn’t mix well.
And so, at the end of the conversation, Shion pressed her fingers to her lips and said, “Real or not, we should keep this between us for now, okay? Things are as tense as it is.”
(To this day, this moment when they all converged was the best moment of her life.)
✿ ✿ ✿
The six were… an interesting bunch. And troublesome. Cadence would constantly try to convince Olive to steal money from his parents, causing Atienna or Werner to jump in to stop Olive from naively going through with it. Maria would talk nonstop about nonsensical things like fairies and demons and spirits with such enthusiasm that oftentimes Jericho believed they were real.
As their connection progressed, their memories began to bleed into hers. Olive’s were full of childish spoiledness, love, and tenderness. But Shion thought that was fine—it was childhood, after all. That’s where spiritual freedom thrived. Atienna was doted on by a loving father and an exceptionally bright mother, while also caring for her younger siblings like she herself was a mother—though Atienna always had an odd distance to her. Maria’s memories brought Shion concern—especially the memories of the orphanage Maria’d been raised at—but a rosy sense of adventure colored them over.
But the other three—saints, the other three. There were memories there that Shion felt ashamed of even witnessing, because she couldn’t do anything about them. What was even more upsetting about it all was that they didn’t seem to see anything wrong with their experiences. To them, it was a natural part of life.
Shion knew Ophiuchus couldn’t solve all of Signum’s problems, but seeing all of their suffering laid out to her was like a slap in the face. She couldn’t just stand by, she’d thought. She knew she couldn’t bring peace to Signum like the new peacekeepers could, but she decided that she could at least try to bring peace to the lives of these children.
So, Shion started with Cadence first, nudging her to interact more with the other street children in the Twin Cities and to accept Ricardo Romano’s offer of help. But Cadence was full of distrust, and her intense fear of abandonment flooded everyone often. Resistance through subtle jabs and redirection was like bread-and-butter to her.
But Shion solved this with a line she turned over in her head ten times before presenting to Cadence: “Look, Cadence, even if those people leave you, we’ll still be here, right? So you might as well try, okay? Think of it like… a cost-benefit analysis.”
Cadence begrudgingly conceded and became intertwined with the Foxmans, the Romanos, and Nico Fabrizzio as a result.
Shion was pleased with this since it meant that Cadence would no longer spend those nights alone. The only caveat was that Cadence’s new network of friends usually roped her into precarious situations. But Werner was swift and responsible—especially when Shion herself was too busy with her work in the ELPIS Department to dip in. As the months of their connection dragged into years, he picked up the habit of overriding Cadence whenever she would find herself unable to talk herself out of the path of local delinquents.
“Thanks, Werner,” Shion would tell him after, “for making sure that they’re not getting into too much trouble while I’m out. ”
“There’s no need to thank me, Shion,” he’d say before turning on Cadence: “You shouldn’t have gotten into that situation to begin with, Cadence. That was careless, and you should tell Nico the same. Maria and I won’t always be here to help the both of you.”
“But you’re here now, right?” Cadence would chime. Later, however, she would always synchronize with him and morosely make her way over to his side. She’d never apologize or thank him verbally, but she’d linger there chattering away late into the night as he completed his extracurricular assignments.
The two certainly had a unique relationship.
One time, Shion had stumbled on Werner’s image wielding a pair of scissors against Cadence who was cornered in the abandoned warehouse that she was temporarily making her home with the Foxmans.
“What’s going on here?” Shion asked flatly upon arrival.
“She needs to cut her hair,” Werner explained. “It’s unacceptable.” Addressing Cadence, he continued, “You keep engaging in fights, and your enemies use your long hair against you. It’s a detriment.”
“But Atienna’s hair—”
“Atienna keeps her hair clean,” Werner returned without remorse. “And she doesn’t put herself into situations like you.”
Cadence pouted. “But—”
It hurts when it’s pulled.
At Werner’s unspoken thought, Cadence froze, squirmed, grumbled, conceded: “Fine…” She proceeded to allow him to guide her on how to cut her hair appropriately. Surprisingly, when it was finished, Cadence admired herself in the dirty, cracked mirror Allen had installed just the other day. “Hey, this is pretty charmin’. I bet a lot of dolls are into this look nowadays, right?”
Werner sighed. “That shouldn’t be your concern out here.”
Buttered compliments from Atienna and Maria bolstered Cadence’s confidence, and the entire matter was tied with a neat bow.
Werner, on the other hand, was… difficult in a different way than the others.
His family hung over his shoulders like a shroud, like chains. No, like strings. Every action he took—she came to realize—was dictated by his mother’s words which were carved into him much like the scars on his hands. The lessons in school simply tightened the strings and hammered the obedience further. It alarmed Shion how such seemingly minuscule moments shaped an entire person’s life.
One day, she asked Werner, “Is serving in the Capricornian army really what you want to do? After you graduate from the military academy? Even after you’ve finished all the required service years?”
“What else would I want?” Werner responded. “It’s the greatest honor to serve in the Capricornian army. What better way can I give back to my country?”
She could tell he hadn’t even thought about the question before responding. It was automatic to the point where it had seemed pre-written. But at that time, Werner was still apprehensive of them all, so Shion hadn’t pushed it.
Some time after that, she was assigned to investigate a possible ELPIS bubble in Capricorn in a city-town just outside of Werner’s hometown. This was when Shion brought up the possibility of her visiting him to verify that this was real. Werner had accepted, while Olive had voiced his jealousy and Cadence kept hers hidden with a smile.
But the day they were to physically meet had been an unpleasant one for Werner. He’d been asked to stay late at the military academy after he’d miscalculated the time it would take to set up an extracurricular event slated for the next day. He offered Shion an apology, but she reassured him it was fine and used the time to explore his village under a beautiful full moon. When he returned home three hours later, however, he was met with his irate mother.
His mother’s words cut like a knife, stabbing over and over— “Why are you home so late? Unacceptable. Why didn’t you plan ahead? Don’t you realize I have to handle the entire household by myself? Your teachers probably think you don’t know up from down. Look at you. Don’t you care about what other people think about you? Don’t you think about how other people feel? What’s wrong with you, Werner? I keep telling you repeatedly—”
It was the first time Shion had been ‘present’ when he’d been at the end of his mother’s whip, and fury boiled over in her chest. While Werner bore with it and took it all in, Shion couldn’t. In a fit, she reached out and stepped into his place. His mother’s words bounced off of her easily—although suppressing her urge to punch the woman wasn’t so easy. To an adult like herself, Shion thought, this woman was absolutely nothing.
After several hours, the woman grew tired of shouting, tearfully half-apologized, pulled Shion into a hug, and left. Shion took Werner back to his room and waited for the override to time out. When it did and she returned to herself, she picked herself off the ground from where she’d passed out behind the village’s local inn and made her way over to his house. She alighted by his window just as they’d discussed and knocked twice.
When he let her in, he pressed, “What did you do?”
Shion frowned as she scanned his well-kept room. “You didn’t deserve that.”
“You cannot override me like that without permission, Shion. It’s irresponsible for both of us to—”
“It’s not about responsibility!” She grabbed his hands and ripped off his gloves. And as she inspected his bare palms, her heart fell. With burning eyes, she sat him down on his bed and asked, “Are these recent?”
“No,” Werner admitted hesitantly, looking away from her tears. “She hasn’t done it in some time. The scarring is because of my own neglect in taking care of it. There’s no need for concern.” He hesitated. “All of this is just discipline—”
“I know all about discipline! I’m a Sagittarian of the Hoshi Clan. Trust me, I know!” Shion snapped before recollecting herself and continuing, “This is just the sadism and narcissism from a woman who will never be happy with herself.”
Werner’s eyes narrowed. “With all due respect, you shouldn’t speak about situations you don’t understand. She has invested time and money in raising me. The least I could do is meet her expectations.”
His statement horrified Shion. A ‘dutiful’ son…? But he was right. Who was she to be butting into a domestic affair she knew nothing about? He wasn’t her family. Not really. But…
“But just let me take over sometimes at least. It’s tough, isn’t it?” she murmured, tightening her hold of his hand. “It’s only fair with you overriding Cadence all the time when I’m not around. Distribution of duty. Plus, that way the others won’t have to hear it too.”
“It wouldn’t be right to give it all that duty to one person, okay?”
Werner contemplated her statement to such a degree of seriousness that Shion almost forgot her anger and sadness. (He was always funny despite not trying to be.)
“It would still…” Werner began hesitantly. “…be inappropriate.”
“You don’t need to keep up appearances with us. We already know most of the ins-and-outs at this point,” Shion said with an air of finality. “I… think it’s good to keep things private sometimes, but not when it comes to this. But still… it’s up to you.”
He didn’t respond.
But as she pulled her hand away, he abruptly tightened his grip. When she looked back at him, his expression startled her. Still, she curled her hand tighter around his as a passing cloud shrouded the moonlight.
“I understand,” she said. “I’ll [ ] you. I’ll always be on your side, okay?”
Later, as he neared the age of service, he came to her with worries about his military placement after his graduation. He’d been assigned to the capital while his childhood friends had been sent out to the borders. He was concerned about their well-being—mostly Gilbert’s, since Gilbert was being sent to the south. Werner wanted to accompany him there to [ ] him and reasoned that it would also help his military career.
“But I’m concerned it would appear that I’m displeased with my current position,” he said. “I don’t want it to reflect poorly on me or my family.”
With all of her heart, Shion wished Werner would stay in the capital. It was safer there. Less of a chance to see conflict. But she also wanted him to choose on his own, so she insisted he should do what he wanted.
(And to this day, Shion still regretted her foolish choice of words.)
Addressing things was even harder with Jericho than with Werner and Cadence combined; because even though Jericho’s feelings and memories bled into her, Shion didn’t quite understand him. Hatred and calm co-existed within him. Apathy and passion too. He was so distant despite always being present. A person with both little and extreme attachments. A walking paradox.
And so, she simply reached out to him on the nights when she couldn’t sleep. They’d stay up together in silence. Sometimes she would fold origami cranes for him using pages of the journal the peacekeepers gave him. Eventually, he picked up the habit of sketching his notebook. However, he would always rip her origami and his drawings up into tiny pieces after they were done. She never dared ask why.
One day, deep into the night, Jericho finally asked, “Theta was bad?”
Although Shion was caught off-guard, she nodded. “The ELPIS leader that took you in? Yes, she probably was…”
Jericho’s face darkened. “They were the bad ones. They tricked us. They made us believe. They should be punished.”
Jericho’s rage swirled so intensely in Shion’s chest that it took a moment for her to reply—“Those are strong words for someone so young.” She rested a hand on his head. “Haven’t you heard of love and peace?”
“Okay. Then I want to be a peacekeeper like you,” Jericho replied. “Because you’re good. And love and peace.”
The remark had completely thrown Shion in for a loop, but something akin to happiness blossomed in her chest.
✿ ✿ ✿
As time went on, they began to hold synchronization ‘meetings’—although they really weren’t meetings at all.
During one, they all attended one of Werner’s academy’s marksmanship competitions. Despite his intense anxiety, he’d kept a steady and cool appearance and hit nine out of ten bulls-eyes. One bullet had hit just slightly off-center.
Despite his mother smiling sweetly, her eyes were full of disapproval. But Maria’s wild cheering and chattering drowned out his mother’s gaze. And despite standing at stiff attention as he received his reward medals, Shion could see the corners of his eyes crinkle as the others draped themselves over him and cheered.
During another meeting, they attended a makeshift concert hosted by Cadence and the street children in the Casa d’Bambolle. The workers there including Alma watched on with mild amusement as the faux concert continued on. The final act belonged to Cadence who stormed through an impressive solo. As applause erupted when she finished her song and took a deep bow, she looked not to Alma but to Shion and the rest of them for approval. And Shion gave her just that.
At another meeting, they posed together for hours so that Jericho could try to capture their portraits in his journal. And he did so quite well—so much so that he received a compliment from everyone, including even Werner. But as always, after he was finished, he tore it up into tiny little pieces and discarded it in the trash.
When Atienna finally pressed him for why, Jericho said, “It’s better to destroy it now. With my own hands. It can’t get ruined later.”
Atienna smiled and said, “Oh, I’m the same way. Whenever I near the end of the book, I stop reading and just imagine what happens next. Endings usually are very disappointing, don’t you think?”
(Shion knew should’ve seen the signs then.)
Oftentimes as Shion would watch them all together, her heart would swell. And each time, she would reassure herself that she would [ ] them all. No matter what. She knew she couldn’t go back and change what was already carved into them—that would always remain. But she figured she would ensure that the rest of these days would be filled only with good memories. Although she could never say that three-lettered phrase aloud, she felt it deeply.
It was all very simple and stupid, Shion knew. But the fact they looked to her when they had troubles made her feel like she had a place in the world. Right, she decided then, this was how she would carve her place into this universe that almost no longer had any record of her.
(Even if it was just pretend.)
✿ ✿ ✿
But the connection was not a cure-all. Jericho still remained in that isolated room, Cadence wept when Alma was taken away, and Werner still remained beneath his family’s eyes. The deep sadness entrenching Shion’s heart also didn’t disappear. Some nights she still found herself at the bottom of a bottle.
One night, she drunkenly took herself up to the sky and teetered dangerously on her conductor. She didn’t quite remember it, but she recalled frantic shouting from Olive, Cadence, and even Jericho. She eventually was guided by Maria back down to the ground, to her apartment, and to her bed.
When she woke up the next morning, she was greeted not only by a pounding headache but also by a displeased Werner and a frowning Atienna.
“Shion, this can’t go on any longer,” Werner said.
“This is serious, Shion,” Atienna affirmed. “You need help.”
“Listen to us, please, Shion,” Atienna urged.
Werner nodded, eyes narrowed. “The others look up to you. You can’t engage in such reckless behavior and endanger yourself. Think about the consequences. What would happen if you slipped and fell? How would they feel?”
(At this time, the thought of shared death had not occurred to them.)
It was the first time she’d seen either of them so angry.
“You need to go to the Psychological Evaluations Department,” Werner continued. “Like you said, some things shouldn’t be kept private.”
“Shion, please,” Atienna pressed. “At least one time.”
And Shion did just that.
Her first session was with that young woman, Alice Kingsley. It felt strange to be speaking about her problems to someone younger than her, but as time went on, she began to rely less and less on the bottle. Eventually, Shion came to trust Alice so much that she signed off on papers transferring Jericho to the care of the Psychological Evaluations Department in hopes that they could help him too.
✿ ✿ ✿
“Shut up! Don’t say that out loud!” Jin shoved a hand over Shion’s mouth and shoved her against the wall. “Shion, are you crazy?!”
They had just gotten off on one of the rare lunches they shared together and were walking through the empty hall leading to the ELPIS Department. Jin had asked Shion why her mood had been so good recently, and Shion had decided finally to disclose everything.
Shion insisted, “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s rea—”
“No, that’s not it, Shion!” Jin’s eyes were wide with horror. “I know it’s real, but you can’t be a True Conductor, okay?!”
“A True Conductor…?”
“I said shhh!” Jin hissed. “Shi-shi, there’s a lot going on in the background that you don’t know about, but that’s not a bad thing. Not knowing, I mean.”
“Just… live simple, aight? Keep your head down. Don’t look into anything. And don’t tell anyone about this,” Jin said, pulling away. “You want all the people you’re connected with to be happy, right? Then listen to me.”
Shion trusted Jin, so she did just that.
But that changed following Lavi’s saint candidacy ceremony. Olive was beside himself with excitement when Lavi’s candidacy was announced, and Shion herself felt a bit of pride that Lavi had been selected too.
When Lavi returned from the ceremony, however, Shion’s heart fell. The girl had failed it, and that failure seemed to hang over her head like a cloud. Lavi became quiet, reserved, avoided even Olive, and spent most of her time in her room. Once, when Olive peeked in to visit her, he’d found her sobbing quietly into her pillow. In turn, Olive became morose and had to be comforted by Atienna.
It was because of Olive’s concerns that Shion went to New Ram City’s royal library to investigate if there was any way to ‘redo’ the Ariesian saint candidacy ceremony. It was by mere coincidence that she stumbled on a page listing the past saint candidates of Aries there and noticed that the previous Ariesian saint candidate had the same initiation date as Jin—which was also the same date as one of the highest-casualty battles during the Reservoir War.
As uneasiness built in her chest, Shion looked to further past saint candidates and historical events. She knew she wasn’t bright but she still was able to cross-reference the dates of all the candidates with major historical events—most of which began with bloodshed and ended with the discovery of a large reservoir.
“It has to be a coincidence…” Shion murmured. But—
“There’s no such thing as coincidence,” was what Talib would say all the time whenever Shion had the time to sit down and eat lunch with him.
She couldn’t let them live in a world like this.
Calming herself, she made coded notes in the corner of the saint candidate list book, stowed it away, and left back to Ophiuchus. She cashed in a vacation leave and began scouring the various libraries across the continent. One of her trips took her to a psychiatric facility in Capricorn where a person—a True Conductor just like herself—was being ‘treated.’ When she revisited the place later, the facility was being dismantled and she was barred entry.
She couldn’t quite put the pieces altogether on her own, but she still tried to keep her research away from the others. She wanted to shield them—her whole world—as much as she could. This was something she would handle alone. Because… she also (selfishly) wanted to become someone they could rely on fully. (She was a fool.)
But they were bright, and Cadence had an affinity for uncovering lies. So—
“You’re hidin’ somethin’, ain’t ya, Shion?” Cadence asked one day during a synchronization meeting. “Ya’ve been goin’ all over the continent. Ya even stopped in Gemini. What are ya lookin’ for? What are ya doin’? Spill the dirt! Spill the dirt!” She got Olive, Maria, and Jericho—though he looked confused—to chant along with her.
Shion was never a good liar, but—thankfully—she’d been working on something else simultaneously with her investigations. Something she had no problem revealing. Digging into her suitcase in her hotel room closet, she pulled out a stack of papers before holding it out to Cadence’s image.
“Well, I was going to wait until I finalized everything,” Shion said, “but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to reveal it now. Here, read.”
“Aw, why can’t ya just fire it into my brain?” Cadence pouted before turning to Werner and Atienna. “Please? Can one of ya read it?”
“You need to improve your reading skills.” Werner sighed, but he ‘took’ the documents from Shion and scanned them. His eyes widened a fraction, and the corner of his lips pulled upwards.
His discovery bled into the others—
“You’re gonna… take me in?” Cadence realized as she turned to Shion. “You’re not lyin’ ta me, are ya, Shion…?”
“I’m not a liar,” Shion provided, hands spread, before she chuckled. “Well, the paperwork is going to take some more time, since there’s almost no record of you… but yep.”
Cadence’s cheeks flushed a rosy shade of red. “Really, really?” Her voice cracked. “Y-Ya mean it? Ya… want me? Y-You’re not pullin’ my leg, right…?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Cadence took a step back before her face folded, and she buried her face in one of her hands. Although Shion couldn’t see Cadence’s tears, she could feel them. And she could also feel Cadence’s entire body tremble with pure happiness. When Cadence sank to her knees, Atienna’s and Olive’s images ran to her side and held her.
Still, as Shion sank down with them, she couldn’t say that three-lettered phrase. (Regret.)
“Hurray!” Maria sang, leaping and dancing around. “This is amazing, yes? Shion owns you, and I own Shion, so that means I also own Cadence!”
Shion preferred the term ‘family’ to ‘own’, but she was too embarrassed to say it out loud. (Regret.)
“I am happy for you, Cadence,” Jericho said, sinking beside Cadence too. “Don’t cry. This is good. Smile.”
I am happy, ya idiot, came Cadence’s thought as she sniffled.
Eventually, Cadence cried herself to sleep. Her exhaustion passed to Olive and Jericho who turned in for the night too. Maria bounced around excitedly for another half an hour before she curled up to sleep too. Werner and Atienna, however, lingered side-by-side.
Glancing at Werner, Atienna asked first, “What’s really going on Shion…?”
Werner nodded. “We’re aware you’ve been investigating something outside of your duties as a peacekeeper.”
Of course. They were way too bright for her.
Maybe if this was right when their connection began, she might’ve been able to convince Werner and Atienna to leave it alone. Now, however, they looked on at her with hard, unwavering gazes. (She’d been proud.)
“We’re connected, Shion,” Atienna murmured. “It’d be strange if we didn’t know. Although your skill at hiding it does open many career possibilities…”
Shion sighed in defeat. “Okay. I have been investigating something, but I can’t tell you just yet… I’m not even sure what I’m looking at. Ah, but don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
Werner and Atienna exchanged looks and frowns.
“Just trust me, okay? I’ll tell all of you when I get it together. Just think of it as an add-on of my peacekeeper job.”
Werner and Atienna exchanged looks again before both offering her a nod.
“Is there anything you need us to do?” Werner asked.
“Anything that we can help with…?”
Shion drew slowly after a beat, “I’m not going to be at the synchronization meetings for a while, so I’d like you both to take over in the meantime. And… can I ask you both a favor?”
“Of course,” Werner and Atienna said in unison.
“Werner, I need you to make sure the others stay out of trouble while I’m gone, okay?” Shion pressed, pushing her fingers to her lips and placing a hand on his cheek. “We need to try to stay hidden as much as possible. More so than what we’re doing now.”
“There’s no need to even ask,” Werner responded curtly. “I’m not a child anymore.”
Suppressing a chuckle, Shion then turned Atienna and moved a hand to her cheek. “And, Atienna, try to make sure they get along with each other, alright? No fighting.”
Atienna offered a kind, but tired and weary smile. “Of course, Shion, but please take care of yourself too.”
✿ ✿ ✿
On that day that Shion had decided to return to Ophiuchus, the sun had been particularly hot and muggy—both in Ophiuchus and in Aries on Olive’s end. Feeling Olive’s sadness about Lavi tugging at her chest, Shion had dipped in with him briefly and had suggested he go outside the palace and buy a blackbird for her.
Shion’s reason for returning to the Serpens Establishment was to address some of her research with Jin—Jin whom she trusted fully, Jin who was most definitely involved in whatever this was. But when Shion walked into Jin’s department head office, she found Nareen waiting at Jin’s desk instead.
“Where’s Jin?” Shion asked tightly, not taking a seat in the guest chair despite Nareen’s offer.
“Why? You’ve been curious lately,” Nareen hummed with a smile. “Are you going to ask her about the saint candidates and the reservoirs? While I admire your passion, I must say that this is the end of the line.”
Shion backed out of the office and into the cubicle area of the department, only to find that all of the peacekeepers present were standing outside of their cubicles and staring directly at her. Dark blue scorpion-like tattoos crawled across all of their faces, and they blinked and breathed in unison.
She tensed. “What’s going on here…?”
“They can’t hear you now,” Nareen said as she rose from the desk. “It’s your fault, you know? If you hadn’t looked into all of this, I wouldn’t have had to infect them all to confront you. As for me—I’m just doing what was asked of me. Living manipulation is a delicate thing.”
Human manipulation? But how…?
Not stopping to think or panic, Shion whipped out her conductor, sent a burst of air out, and knocked all of the peacekeepers down to the ground. She leapt over their bodies and made for the open hall. Just as she reached the threshold, however, one of the peacekeepers lunged for her conductor and tried to pull it out of her hands. Shion tried to tug back but froze when she registered the other peacekeepers picking themselves off of the floor
Shion released her conductor, and the peacekeeper fell back against the force of his tug. Shion fell forward too but picked herself up and darted for her life down the department’s white halls. She could hear a stampede of footsteps following behind her. She rounded the corner in a panic—which was when Olive’s terror shot through her chest like a bullet.
Screaming, crying, and shouting resonated from his end. Halls filled with smoke, stampeding footsteps, booming vitae-ray fire, and flashes of bright white vitae.
The Ariesian royal palace was being raided…?
“I didn’t know,” came Olive’s sob as he dragged Lavi down the large red halls of the palace. “I didn’t know. I didn’t—”
He had accidentally let an ELPIS member into the premises, Shion came to realize.
Why hadn’t Werner…?
I’m so stupid, Shion realized as she tore through the halls herself. Werner’s first official day in the field was today. And Atienna was at an important meeting with her mother, and the others were—dammit! How could she be so stupid?!
A whirlwind suddenly hurtled through the hall down from up ahead, knocking her pursuers right off of their feet. When she looked forward, she found Jin standing there at the corner in front of a window. A staff conductor was in her hands.
Relief swept over Shion at the sight of Jin as she darted to her side.
“Jin, you’re more foolish this time than any time before,” came a familiar sigh from behind. Nareen smiled as she approached them and pointed at Shion. “I’ve been watching her. She knows too much. We can’t let her be. Let me do my job.”
“How about no,” Jin said.
“Well, I like stupid people like myself so—yeah—no.” Jin pressed the staff conductor into Shion’s hands. “Go, Shi-shi. Run and hide.”
“But,” Shion objected, “you don’t have a conductor—”
Jin extended out a hand and out from her palm came a burst of blue flecked air blew past Shion and threw Nareen back against the far wall of the hall.
Werner, Atienna, Maria, Shion! Olive cried. Please, someone, help—
With terror seizing her heart, Shion threw herself out of the window, kicked up her conductor as glass rained around her, and shot up to the sky. She pushed forward and upwardly desperately, knowing she had to get to Olive somehow. She had to. She was the only one close enough—
A darkness passed over the horizon, swallowing the sun whole. The temperature dropped which was followed by the sound of cacophonic flapping, fluttering, caw-ing.
Shion looked up, heart falling.
An entire black cloud of birds stretched as far as the eye could see blanketed the skyline. Like a storm.
What in the world…? Was her luck truly this terrible or…? No—it was the Manipulator saint candidate…?
The cawing intensified as the black cloud drew nearer. It sounded like laughter.
Shion shot up higher in the sky to escape, to get to Olive. She knew it was an impossible feat with the breadth that the birds took up. She’d seen air Elementalists raids blanketing the sky back in the war and it was impossible to escape them. Even so, she tried. She had to—
Shion, help! Someone reached out in a panic. Olive is—
Fire danced in Shion’s vision.
Lavi was dangling by a hand around the neck in front of her. A crack echoed as Lavi’s body fell limp, and Olive’s cry burned its way into Shion’s brain.
Shion let out a breath, vision spinning as she expelled more and more vitae, but then saw a flash of black only centimeters away from her face.
The birds battered against her body without care for their own. Black feathers swirled around her as she pulled up her hand to fend off their pecking and clawing. She spat out feathers, winced past the stinging cuts of their claws and beaks, and—
—then realized that her conductor was no longer in her hand.
Her eyes darted left and right. Nothing but white cloud, blackbird, blue sky.
No, no, no…! She couldn’t die—not now!
But down she tumbled, cold whipping air now stinging the cuts on her face and hands. She searched in a frenzied panic for her conductor as the birds continued to caw and laugh. The wind whipped tears in her eyes and coated her mouth with feathers. She choked on them as she shouted desperately, grabbed blindly. And then—
—the blackbirds pulled away, the skyline becoming a visible clear blue. But Shion still couldn’t find her conductor anywhere.
In the distance, Olive’s terror expanded.
But she couldn’t get to him. Neither could any of the others. She could hear them crying out in fear and panic but she could do nothing.
Jin. Jin would come. Shion was sure Jin would come and save her—and then she herself could go save Olive. But the thought left Shion as soon as it came. It was impossible. Even though Jin was amazing.
Fire erupted around Olive, consuming everyone and everything as a painful, searing heat burned its way in his chest—her chest, their chests.
Shion cursed herself as tears—not from the wind this time—leaked from her eyes. She couldn’t reach him. Ah, she’d failed.
Why couldn’t she have just ignored everything like Jin had said…? That way she could’ve been by his side—by all of their sides. She really was a fool. She should’ve just lived happily with the other six until the end. She really was stupid.
After all, in the beginning, this was really what she wanted—just to take that final step and fall. And now that she was finally falling, all she wanted to do was to fly. To live and reach their sides.
Someone cried out desperately, Shion—
But what could she say? All she wanted to do now was hold them all one last time but that was impossible. No apologies would suffice, but something simple might. Something she should’ve said from the very beginning even if it was pretend.
I love y—
⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ✖ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘
When Shion regained something akin to consciousness, she found herself standing in an endless abyss by a river of glowing light. There was nothing around her besides that light. But she couldn’t focus on the oddity. All she could think about was Olive. Olive and Lavi. But she couldn’t feel him—couldn’t feel any of them. Just a cold emptiness that expanded just like the abyss around her.
She cried and shouted for them, but no one answered. She wandered away desperately into the dark but found herself right back at that river of light. Over and over again. Still, she kept at it, her tears and shouts subsiding. But she didn’t give up.
Just before she was about to throw herself across the river of light in hopes that it would somehow let her leave this place, Lavi appeared across the river from her out of thin air.
“Stupid,” Lavi said, eyes narrowed. “You’re dead.”
Shion’s heart hammered.
“You can’t cross here anymore.”
It was a fact that Shion had been pushing to the back of her mind, but the reality of it being said out loud was like a weight off her shoulders and a weight on her chest.
Shion sank to the ground before the divide and whispered, “Are they…?”
“They’re alive,” Lavi responded. “Somehow.”
“And… are you?”
Lavi frowned at her, confused, before muttering, “I don’t know… but probably.”
Relief blossomed in Shion’s chest at this. If they were alive, that was enough for her.
“And where—” Shion’s voice caught in her throat as she registered the fury burning in Lavi’s eyes.
Without saying another word, Lavi faded from her sights like a wisp of flame in the wind.
And that left Shion there in the abyss all alone. She sat for a long time in that spot—minutes, hours, days, months, years? Who knew. What she did know was that it gave her a lot of time to think. Like—
If she was dead, how could she still think? Maybe this was punishment: sitting here doing nothing and separated from everyone like this? Shion supposed she deserved it. She’d done many terrible things during the war and brought more sadness than happiness to people. It would’ve been nice if she could see her parents though. She wondered if they were wandering here too.
Those thoughts would swirl around in her head a loop, but she would still always come back to thing:
Now that she was gone, she wondered how they were doing. She hoped they were still happy and were living simply—regardless of everything that happened. Since things got tough, she hoped they would be there to support each other and not run away when things got tough. She figured they were probably mad her now—she was too. Still, as long as they were alive and with each other that would be enough.
But then, one day, Shion felt a rumble in the darkness. She looked up to see six bright burning streaks of light flash across the abyss above her head. And then she could feel them again—faintly but surely.
Lavi appeared before her on that day with hands over ears. She stared up to the sky as the lights warmed her face. “The syzygy is approaching.”
And as time passed on, very faint memories from the other six sank through the abyss to her. It was a familiar, warm, and welcome sensation—at least until Shion began to reach a terrifying conclusion:
The six of them didn’t remember her or each other.
They acted like strangers—treated each other harshly, coldly, distantly. It made no sense, but Werner’s cold-eyed arrival during the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict followed by Jericho’s brief stay when he’d encountered an ELPIS Leader in a Twin Cities confirmed this with certainty:
“Who are you?” they’d both demanded, fixating on her empty stares without recognition.
Shion felt like her heart had been ripped out. And as she agonized over this to herself when they both eventually left her side, Lavi appeared before her in a wisp of crimson. It was the third time Lavi had come before her here, so Shion looked to her hopefully and out of concern.
“It’s getting painful watching you do this again and again.” Lavi grimaced. “I wanted you to suffer because I’m stuck… but this is just too sad.”
“What are you saying…? Stuck? I thought you said you were still alive? Are you okay…?”
“No, I’m not!” Lavi’s face crumpled, and she seethed—no, whimpered. “I-I’m stuck here too because of you, while O-Ollie’s up there! All alone and hurting! And I can’t tell him anything! B-Because I’m stuck down here because of you! Because of Scorpio! Because of ELPIS!”
“I don’t understand…” Shion whispered, hands placating. “Please don’t cry…”
Lavi sniffled and recomposed herself. She fell into a crouch and mumbled something about the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, memories, and souls, before saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen something like this happen. I’m guessing that you didn’t know that when one of you True Conductors dies, all the connected True Conductors you’re connected to also die.”
“When you died six years ago, you almost dragged all of them down here with you. That’s what happens. A rickety structure collapses when one support fails. Your vitae came down here to return to the cycle, and their vitae were dragged along with it.”
Shion felt faint. “I… almost killed them?”
“But at the same time you died, I entered Ollie.” Lavi’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing like this has happened before, so I’m just guessing here… But the vitae in me that makes up Lavender Chance probably took the place of the hole you left behind after you died. The vitae that makes me the Saint Candidate of Aries is stuck here, unable to enter the cycle. Maybe it’s filling in the cracks you’ve left behind… And you—you’re barely hanging on a thread to them. You’re stuck like me.”
But why didn’t they—
“Since vitae returns to the cycle at death, I guess the bits of their vitae from your connection opening to your death came flushed down here with you. Every vitae particle containing the memories of when you spoke with each other or ‘synchronized’ is no longer up there. It’s either down here with you or it’s returned to the cycle. If there was any residual memory left, I’m sure the trauma of actually dying took care of the rest of it.”
“I’m sorry…” Shion chuckled faintly. “W-What are you saying…?”
“I’m saying that to them their first ‘synchronization’ meeting—like you call it—happened just a couple days ago,” Lavi finished. “When you died and I entered, it acted like a reset and closed the connection. And now… the connection is open again. And I’m a pseudo-True Conductor… I guess. But only through Ollie.”
Shion couldn’t comprehend it.
“I guess they filled in the missing pieces in their memory on their own. The mind is a powerful thing.” Lavi looked away. “Those people you were connected with and spent all of that time with—I guess you can say they longer exist. Or maybe that they never existed in the first place. Like you.”
“They were by themselves that long…?” Shion fell to her knees as an intense pain swelled in her chest. Her vision swam as tears pricked her eyes as the pain threatened to explode.
She had abandoned them, she realized. Right when they’d needed her most. Saints, just when Cadence was about to leave that life behind. And what about Werner and his mother and his service? What about Jericho in Ophiuchus? Olive who begged for her in her last moments? Maria? Atienna?
Everything was gone…? But—but why hadn’t anyone that was close to them spoken up? Noticed anything different about them?
Then Shion realized: it was because she had selfishly kept them close—because she had wanted to become the one for them to all rely on. She had urged them to keep their connection a secret and to keep their behavior in check. So there had been no one there for them after she died. No one who really knew them.
A sob tore its way through Shion’s throat as she curled up into herself.
Stupid! Simple-minded! Stupid!
She pounded the ground and hugged her stomach as she cried out for something that no longer existed. She had been crying about her own loneliness this entire time when they’d been alone all the same.
No, no time for pity—she shook herself. What mattered was now that they had each other. And they had her too still.
✿ ✿ ✿
When Werner came down again, Shion whispered to him as he arrived: “You tried your best.”
This time around, he seemed a little bit more familiar to her now. His eyes weren’t as cold and unyielding. He’d asked the same questions he’d asked when he first came down here. Where is this? Who are you? What is this? And when Lavi appeared, his suspicion bled out in waves and his questions only increased.
And so, Shion showed him. Using the properties of this threshold, she walked him hand-in-hand—though he resisted at first—through her memories, through the happy times they’d shared, through the sad times they’d shared, through the fights, through the resolutions.
“I see,” was all he said at the end. “If this is true, then that would explain why we were able to communicate so readily despite what Yuseong mentioned. We were connected previously. And as we suspected, the saint candidates are…”
He made no comment on the memories themselves which made her heart sink.
Seeming to hear her through the single thread that still connected them, Werner amended, “I don’t believe that’s pertinent in this situation.”
He really has changed, she thought—which caused him to frown.
Chuckling nervously and waving her hands, Shion murmured, “Don’t worry about it… But I would like to hear what’s going on up there. I only know about it vaguely.”
Afte minute hesitation, with his usual reservation, Werner informed her of some of the events that occurred since their second connection began.
It seemed like Maria wasn’t too different—although it appeared as if her lack of empathy had only increased. But the others had changed greatly. Olive had folded away into a hateful depression that consumed him for years. Atienna had strayed towards an indecisiveness that unnerved Shion. Cadence’s selfish deceit had swallowed her whole—and brought Werner down here. And Jericho’s thirst for revenge was unquenchable. He’d become a peacekeeper not because of her but out of a desire for blood and ‘justice.’
It was too sad to dwell on so Shion went out to speak about more pleasant things. She asked Werner about Fenrir, Gilbert, and Greta, then Viktoria and Ludwig. He was skeptical at first, causing her to fill up the silence after his curt answers with senseless babble about times past. But Werner listened and his skepticism turned into something akin to pity. Which hurt.
Eventually, as time dragged on and they drowned in her past memories, he said, “If this is true, then I can’t let myself sit here and do nothing. Cadence and Jericho are in a precarious situation.”
(But she didn’t want him to go.)
“Your body hasn’t recovered yet,” Lavi said, bluntly. “So all you can do is sit here and do nothing.”
Her words stung more than she knew.
“I’m aware,” Werner said, before adding gently: “I’ll offer my guidance and assistance. Those two are reckless.” He paused, thinking. “I would like to brief them on what I’ve discovered here, but gauging by your state when you’re up above, that’s impossible.”
Lavi nodded. “When you go up there, everything you’ve learned or gained down here remains down here. And if you go up without a body, you’re unfocused and not really ‘there’ because part of you is still down here.”
“And that’s what happens to you?”
Lavi nodded. “But… If you really want to go up there, I guess I can tell you how. First, what do you want to focus on doing?”
Werner contemplated this for a moment before he reached a resolution. And then he went up, leaving Shion all alone again at the threshold.
Still, even with heartache growing in her chest, Shion waited patiently at the border between life and death to help whoever else came down.
Like a fool.
As the black abyss formed around them and the scenery of her memories faded away, Shion stared the glowing line at the man staring back at her.
Werner’s expression was one of simple confusion. Like he was looking at some passerby on the street. She was nothing more to him than a side-character in one of Atienna’s novels. A sad conclusion at the end of a book to be shelved after reading.
“What do you think, Werner? So pitiable.” Scorpio said, hand still resting on his head. “And look at you making almost the same mistake as her. She, a simple-minded girl trying to play the hero. You, a man who can only do what other people say pretending to be someone people can look up to and admire. All of you try to resist who you really are, but you just can’t. This is the result of what happens when you try. But it’s no fault of your own, but the fault of having thought.” It hummed. “Though I have to say to both of you: word of advice—a little bit of selfishness never hurt—”
“Don’t look at me like that… please, Werner,” Shion whispered, vision blurring as she looked away.
It was because she didn’t want him to look at her like this again that she had hidden the truth this time. Just like the idiot she was.
“What isn’t remembered is unfortunately not important.” Scorpio sighed. “Much like everything ELPIS does…”Its face fell. “I am sorry that this happened, Shion. I didn’t realize you were a True Conductor. I didn’t know you’d be stuck here for this long. I know it’s torment. And if you’d like, I can try to cut you out. No more suffering. Well, at least until you return back from the cycle.”
Shion glared. “Why do you say things like that? What more do you want? Why do you keep doing this? What’s the point? We’re people!”
Scorpio frowned. “You don’t think I know that? I just—”
A familiar sound.
Abruptly, a glowing dark blue line formed diagonally across Scorpio’s chest causing the thing to double over seemingly in pain. As the fracture pulsated, Werner tensed and looked up at it almost as if out of concern.
Scorpio’s grimace thinned to a grin and it glanced at Lavi. “Well look at that, Aries. It seems like Libra is finally taking the stage. It’s almost curtain call, Alles Für Alle—all for all.”
Incident Report #310, 30.7.1935 [CASE CLOSED]
Event: A female Sagittarian-Ophiuchian peacekeeper (Conducting-type: Elementalist, air) of the ELPIS Investigations Department reported dead on Serpens Establishment premises. Witness eye accounts state Elementalist fell from high altitude. Subsequent examination by Medical Department list fall from height as COD, instantaneous.
Further investigations reveal Psychological Evaluation Department recorded Elementalist as ‘experiencing depressive and suicidal thoughts,’ although ‘improving.’ However, Elementalist reportedly requested leave prior to death leading to conclusive ruling: suicide.
Peacekeeper has no close family or relatives. Body given to current ELPIS Investigation Department chairwoman.
Category: Internal Affairs, Case File #756IA, General Investigations Department
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