At the same time that Maria encounters Leona, Flannery Caertas—nicknamed ‘money bags,’ childhood friend of Talib and Alice, and failed saint candidate of Libra—has an encounter of her own.
Zugzwang » An obligation to action for eternity
Flannery Caertas still remembered when absolute darkness was her friend. ‘Total blindness’ was what the doctors had called it. The condition had left a lot to her imagination. At the same time, it had a degree of certainty to it. Because she couldn’t see anything, what she defined in her mind was ‘reality.’ An all-powerful imagination.
For instance, she knew Talib Al-Jarrah was a wiry, curious detective right when she first met him in that bomb shelter. Those were the books he would read out to her all the time, and that had shaped her perception of him. Mystery novels where a daring, hard-boiled detective would sweep into a murder scene, punch the living lights out of hired goons, and solve the crime. Even though Flannery knew Talib was younger than her, she’d pictured him as a tall and lanky figure, just like in those books.
As for Alice—Alice was the villain. The mastermind pulling all the strings and dodging the detective with ease. Cool, calm, collected, smirking when all the dominoes fell as planned. Flannery always pictured her as tall and elegant—maybe even stroking a black cat for good measure.
And Flannery herself? She was the deus ex machina. The character that would sweep in at the last moment in a twist of events and somehow wrap up the entire story in a neat bow.
Together, with Flannery herself at the helm, they’d formed a childish brigade to role-play these adventures in the bunker. Whenever the bombs would pound their shelter, Flannery would proudly rise to a stand and declare that she and Talib would: find the source of the sound, find out what nefarious plans Alice had with the sound, and defeat Alice once and for all.
It never made any sense, of course.
But that was Flannery’s reality.
At the cusp of the war’s end, Flannery was notified that she had been marked as a potential saint candidate of Libra. It was strange, she’d thought then. She didn’t think there was anything special about her. All she’d done was take the V-Type test and suddenly everything was set in stone.
On the day of the candidacy ceremony, she was taken to the main Libran Monadic temple and then to Ophiuchus by train. She still remembered the vibration of the glass pane of the train window beneath her palms, still remembered the dissonant click-clacks of the wheels, still remembered the irritating itch of the dress her parents had forced her into.
When they reached Ophiuchus, she was separated from her parents and passed off repeatedly from priest to priest. Each handler placed on her a cold accessory that either dangled from her neck, arms, or ears. The weight had been unpleasant
Eventually, she’d been led out onto a bridge—she could tell back then by the metal, hollow clang, clang beneath her shoes. And from beneath that bridge had come a familiar warm updraft that swirled around her cheeks and brushed her bare legs. She’d been hard-pressed to find out why it was so familiar to her at the time.
Just as she reached an epiphany, however, a hand pushed against her back. She’d stumbled forward, whipping back to scowl, before her next stumbling step sent her tumbling through the air. Down, down, down. Terror seized her tighter with every passing second. And then—
Her entire body jolted at impact; her arms stung; the accessories strained at her arms, legs, and throat; and her breath was forced from her lungs. She took in a desperate gulp of air only for something hot and molten to spill into her chest instead. As soon as the heat touched her tongue, she knew—remembered—what it was. Vitae.
She cried out in agony as it—as everything—clawed its way in through every pore of her body. Things she didn’t want to know, things she didn’t want to see, things she didn’t want to feel. She remembered killing and then being killed, peace then war, camaraderie bleeding to contempt, pride to failure and disappointment, growing old and dying young. Over and over again for centuries.
Most clearly, she could remember the previous saint candidate of Libra. Arthur Pond. Before his candidacy, he’d been an ironically blind lawman who dabbled in music; and after the ceremony, he’d abandoned those pursuits and came to serve beneath the monarchs of Libra ruling at the time. Then, when he’d deemed it time to move on, he’d come to this very reservoir—the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs—and had taken his life here to pass on the title to whoever came next.
She could remember all of this because all of them were her.
When the pain ended and she burst up to the surface and finally breathed air, she could see everything. The burning light of the vitae pool that swirled around her and clung to her skin and clothing. The platform extending out from the tall bridge above the reservoirs. The cluster of Monadic head priests crowding the platform they’d just pushed her off of.
Heaving, she’d dragged herself out from the pool and out onto the shore. When she’d reached land, the head priests were all already waiting there for her. She could see all the flecks of vitae pulsating through their veins with every beat of their heart. She could see it seeping out of their pores and whisping out into the air with every breath they took.
The priests sank to their knees and dipped into a bow as she rose to her feet.
But Flannery had brushed past them and had climbed the spiral metal stairs back up the bridge. She continued along the bridge and walked along the paved white roads leading from the reservoirs to the train station to the small waiting room her parents were residing nervously in.
When she entered the room and looked at them, she could barely recognize them and felt nothing. No sense of relief or comfort, anger of hurt. She’d had too many parents before for these ones to ever stand out.
“She can see!” her parents had cried as she’d approached them on her own.
And Flannery had cried too. Not for herself, of course, but for what ‘her’ parents had unknowingly lost.
“Why is she like this?” her parents had whispered to the medical Conductors several weeks later as Flannery had laid listlessly in bed.
The medical Conductors had been sent in from the highest Monadic temple in Libra. Flannery was well aware she could no longer go to normal medical Conductors. Not without having to handle them accordingly.
“It might be the stress of the candidacy,” the Monadic medical Conductors had said. “We’ll get the head priest to discuss the next steps from here.”
“Are you sayin’ that she failed the ceremony?” her parents had pressed.
“Perhaps,” had been what they’d them with.
Not too much later, Flannery was visited by Timothy Campbell—the Monadic head priest of Libra, the old man who had announced her saint candidacy, the young man whom she’d taken under her wing when she had been Arthur. His russet hair had lost all of its color over the years, and wrinkles sagged down his formerly chubby cheeks.
“Ya’ve grown old.”
“That’s what tends to happen, Libra,” Timothy’d said, smiling with a fondness that he’d only shown her after the ceremony, as he’d seated himself beside her. “We couldn’t find a suitable candidate until now. You missed the war… but we could still use your guidance.”
Flannery suppressed a grimace.
That was the cycle. When they were young, they would give and give. As they grew older, all they did was ask and take, until they grew even older and returned to give and give and give.
It seemed Timothy, despite the age lines, was still in that middle stage.
Timothy continued tentatively, “…will you not take up your duties this time?”
“The war’s ended, Arthur.” Flannery closed her eyes and turned her head away. “What other judgment and wisdom can I provide that you haven’t given t’yourselves already? Y’know me. I’ve always been a neutral party.”
There was no good, no evil, no villain, no hero, no deus ex machina.
That was reality.
Such an ugly color.
Talib and Alice—the sweethearts—came to visit her constantly after the ceremony. But Flannery didn’t want to see them. Because as soon as the two stepped into her room, she was able to see their vitae swirling out from all of their pores like wisps of smoke. No, she saw their life extinguishing.
“How are you feeling?” Alice had asked on that first visit, as bluntly as always. “They’re saying you haven’t eaten. Why?”
Talib walked up to the curtains and drew them open. “Let’s get some light in here, ‘ey? It’s a miracle what happened to your eyes, Flannery. Maybe I should try for saint candidacy too. Maybe I’ll grow taller or stronger—”
“It doesn’t make sense how it happened,” Alice had said in response. “Read the atmosphere, Talib. It may not be something everyone feels like celebrating.”
Light seeped in from the morning outside, illuminating even further the vitae pulsating through their veins and escaping their bodies.
Flannery could see clearly where they ended and where they began. She could deduce what they had done and how much of their life they’d shaved away doing those things. She could see their vitae exiting their bodies and returning to the cycle with each breath they took. She could see exactly where she would need to slide a knife or a bullet coated with her vitae to shatter them to pieces.
But—no, no, no, she didn’t want to see it.
This wasn’t the Talib and Alice that she knew. Not her reality. It couldn’t be.
Panting and heaving, she’d lifted her hands to her face and then gouged her nails into her eyes. It had taken Talib, Alice, and the medical Conductors combined to pull her hands away, but the damage had been done.
However, it didn’t take long for her eyes to recover. It never took long. Pieces of her that ‘broke’ or were ‘insufficient’ could be removed and would return themselves to—not the cycle—but to the reservoir where she’d come from.
Her body had become just a malleable storage unit for the memories and vitae of millions of Librans past. A representation of all of Libra’s conquests and failures.
In other words, she was no longer human, and that was reality.
A couple of years after that, when Flannery’s ‘health had finally improved’, Alice and Talib had come visiting her with white bands around their arms. Peacekeepers, they’d said, one more convincingly than the other. While Flannery had congratulated them cheerily, inside she’d felt a quiet regret because she knew she’d been the catalyst for their choice. Because of this, she’d had a faint desire to stop them.
Although Ophiuchus was the safest place to be before the syzygy, that was only the case if a person kept their eyes averted. And Gabrielle Law, whom Alice and Talib had later introduced Flannery to, was a person who would never dare look away from the sun—even if it meant blinding the eyes. Gabrielle, Flannery had decided, was a dangerous person who created danger for those close to her. And so, acting on a faint protective bias towards Talib and Alice, Flannery had accepted Gabrielle’s invitation to join her group when asked. Even if it was not ‘fair.’
But that was as much as she allowed herself to do. Because Libra’s role was not to intervene unless absolutely necessary.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Flannery crossed her bedroom in her quiet villa with a yawn. As she passed by Alice’s and Gabrielle’s beds, she noted how neatly they were both made. Her own bed was a tousled mess still. Alice usually made it for her, but Alice hadn’t returned to the villa since leaving the convention yesterday with…
Pushing the thought aside, Flannery approached the mirror set beside the desk in the corner of the room. Absent-mindedly, she turned on the large radio set on top of the drawers and inspected herself. She was wearing the silken, thin-strapped blue dress Alice had gifted to her not too long ago, paired with the red bomber jacket she’d borrowed from Talib.
A stern voice crackled out from the radio in Leonian:
“More recent disputes over the dominion of the regional Monadic temples located in-between Gemini and Leo—”
Flannery reached over to the radio and flicked the knob. Static resounded before a different voice came on—this time speaking in Cancerian:
“—territorial tension over the open trade routes leading into Taurus from Scorpio—”
She turned the knob again, this time leaving her fingers resting on it as a voice crackled out in Capricornian:
“—unrest and protests across the nation concentrated in Capricorn’s major cities in response to the accidental deaths of trespassing members of an insurrection movement called the Verbundene Augen. People are asking who is to blame. But, citizens, the real question is when will these protests become riots? When will this movement become an insurrection, a coup d’état? For instance, preliminary police investigations have led us to believe that the recent reservoir leak—”
She changed the channel by one degree.
“—protests against the execution of the peaceful Verbundene Augen protestors within Capricornian land. I say no more! We will not lay down our lives for men who line their pockets with our deaths. I ask that all of our fellow Capricornians in two days join us in our countrywide—”
She turned the knob one last time.
A pleasant woman’s sing-song voice filtered out from the speakers.
Mm—Flannery smiled—Geminian. They always had a good sense of music, art, and wine.
A knock at the door drew Flannery’s attention away from the melody. When she turned, she registered a silhouette cloaked in a mustard-colored aura of light standing at the threshold. She recognized the vitae as Roberto’s.
“Hey, Gabe called,” Roberto said. “Said she needed to speak to you. ASAP.”
Flannery’s brows rose. “Where’ve they been?”
“Work.” Roberto shrugged before nodding at her. “Nice dress. Heading somewhere?”
“Well, I’ve got a dinner meetin’ I need t’attend to wrap up some business… so I probably won’t be able t’do the ASAP thing.”
“Can’t you ask your parents to handle that? That’s what nepotism is for, isn’t it?”
“They left this mornin’,” Flannery replied. “And I don’t think leavin’ a buncha diplomats and businessy types hangin’ at dinner’d do good for our business trajectories. Besides, it’ll be a grand time.”
Roberto asked, brow arched. “Leaving you to clean up after them?”
No, she’d personally asked them to leave. Bias.
Clink, clink, clink! Tap, tap, tap.
Hmm… Silverware scraping against porcelain? Perhaps the rim of two twin wine glasses kissing each other? A lacquered nail thrumming along the edge of the linen-clothed wooden table? Maybe it was from the event waiters and waitresses lighting the wax candles around the room?
Flannery opened her eyes.
The sound was coming from a flock of birds pecking at the glass of the dome window above her head. The window let in the natural light of the setting sun which illuminated the circular table laid in front of her. The table was topped by an assortment of dishes from the countries of the various people encircling the table.
Among them was the Virgoan diplomat Dimka cheerfully seated beside his guard—both dressed in the ornate and colorful Virgoan silken robes. One of the executives from Flannery’s company had recently discussed creating a contract with Virgo, so Dimka’s cheeriness was to be expected. Across from Dimka sat two members of the Sagittarian Xing Clan with whom she’d discussed a contract extension with two days prior. A couple of businessmen and businesswoman from Cancer, and a handful of other diplomats too. Nearly a full-house.
There were, of course, several seats empty around the table from diplomats and investors who had either pulled out of Capricorn due to the civil unrest or due to other commitments. Among the missing was the prince of the Seong Clan whom Flannery had the pleasure of meeting and discussing conductor exports with at the convention recently. The True Conductor, Yuseong Haneul. A pleasant, funny young man.
The ones present seemed to be enjoying themselves to a certain extent. Chattering lively about the conductors they’d seen at the convention, about the promising engineers they’d spoken to, and about everything in-between. And, of course, they carefully tiptoed around talk about the ‘reservoir leak,’ the attack on the local hospital, and the Verbundene Augen movement. That would most likely be a discussion for a different diplomatic meeting. It was a bit funny even after all this time how there was still an itinerary for diplomacy and peacekeeping.
Still, the air was pleasant. Flannery had to shill quite a handful of marks to rent this place out in this central party of the city, so she was quite pleased with it. All for keeping up appearances and formality, but that was business—
The oaken doors flew open abruptly, blowing out the candles lining the walls of the room. The clink-clinking and chattering quieted.
At the threshold of the door stood an elder man dressed in a crisp dull periwinkle uniform regaled with countless medals. A general. Behind him stood a wall of uniformed officers. Ten? Twenty? Militärpolizei. Every single one of them was swathed and coiled in a web of dark blue pulsating vitae. The color was so thick around them that Flannery could barely see the color of their actual vitae.
What in the world was he doing?
Dimka rose from his seat and turned to her pleasantly before starting towards the Capricornians. “Ah, Miss Caertas, did you also invite the Capricornian—”
“Wait,” Flannery snapped, causing Dimka to pause. She recollected herself and smiled. “No, I didn’t send out an invitation.” She then addressed the general, “Do y’have business with Balance Sells, General? We received the letter about the restrictions on our vendors in the country, but I thought I had my secretary send an invoice regardin’ that. Are ya part of the commerce chamber then? If it’s about that, can we discuss this later?”
The diplomats and investors began whispering.
“Actually, I have business with your guests here, Miss Caertas,” the general replied. “It’s regarding all of your presences in Capricorn.”
Now, everyone was rising to a stand.
“And what exactly is the issue with our presence?” one of the Sagittarian royals pressed—Xing Mai, if Flannery recalled correctly. “If it wasn’t by invitation then how did you find us? I don’t appreciate being spied on in a foreign country.”
The general cleared his throat and remained stiff at the threshold. “Yes, well, I’m sure you’re all aware of the disturbances in our country lately. I sent a letter out to your places of residence, but this is an urgent matter so I decided to deliver it personally to those who I was able to. I was made aware that you were hosting a dinner party here by the owner of this location, actually. Quite lucky.”
What a bold, unbelievable lie.
“While I appreciate your promptness and consideration, General,” Mai drew, frowning, “we’re all very aware of what’s happening in this country. We trust that your government has a handle on this situation so that we can continue to cultivate our relationship. That being said, General, this is private dinner, so—”
“I understand that, but we don’t want to risk the possibility of our allies being drawn into this accidentally,” the general continued, “which is why we’re ending the convention early. Today is the last day of it, and we have requested all participants to clean their stations and belongings from the Seele Dome by tomorrow evening.”
“That’s hardly enough time to gather everything and finish contracts and agreements,” a diplomat complained.
“Which is why I’m here to tell you,” the general replied. “So you can get to it as soon as possible. We’re even making an exception on the curfew just for this.”
Flannery’s eyes narrowed.
What kind of game was he playing?
Flannery waved a hand through the air. “Nothin’ to worry about, everyone. I’ll have my secretary send ya copies of our new contracts and agreements by the mornin’, so there’s no issue with closin’ out early with me. It’s all formality anyways. Everything’s been set in stone.”
After a bit more whispering, the diplomats and investors agreed to the proposition and filtered out of the room after offering formal farewells—bows, handshakes, kisses, and whatever they thought was appropriate. Only when the last diplomat’s footsteps receded down the hall outside did Flannery allow herself to relax.
“Ya’ve gone too far,” she said in the silence that followed. “Scorpio.”
“Is that your judgment?” the general—’Scorpio’—asked with a thin grin as the officers filtered into the room and formed a wide circle around her. “Are you sure?”
“Ya’ve gone ahead and planted a spore in a general of this country now,” Flannery replied. “And yer startin’ t’get in on other countries. It’s too much too soon.”
“Too much too soon?” Scorpio’s face twisted. “Do you hear yourself? By the way, it wasn’t my choice to infect this general. I left that choice to one of my towers and just went along with what they wanted. You wouldn’t be able to guess which tower did it.” He pulled down the collar of his shirt, revealing not only a dark blue scorpion tattoo but also a tattoo in the familiar shape of an eye.
An infected general who was also made to be part of the Augen movement? What exactly was he planning?
“And you wouldn’t be able to guess what idea that’s swimming around in this head.”
“I’m assumin’ y’made the Kaiser of this country into a tower. That leader of the Verbundene Augen and Leona too, right? Yer endin’ the convention early which’ll force the diplomats t’the trains early. That Augen protest is goin’ on around that time too, isn’t it? ”
“I pay attention t’the news, and yer not as clever as y’think.” Flannery rose from her table and plucked the butter knife resting by her plate. “What’re y’doin’ here?”
“In Capricorn? Well, I saw an opportunity and decided to cultivate it.”
“No, I mean in here.”
“You already said it,” he replied, chuckling. “Capricorn is just one country. The syzygy requires more reservoirs and many more True Conductors—”
“The syzygy moves forward only not by our hand but by the will of the country. Those are the rules. Y’cant go plantin’ yer spores like y’please. This country and those countries aren’t even part of the domain you agreed t’look over.” She tightened her grip on the knife. “Ya don’t have t’do this.”
“Is that how you’re living your life?” Disdain creased Scorpio’s features. “Just sitting around and waiting for the syzygy to happen? I refuse.”
So that was that then. A verdict was needed.
Flannery grabbed for one of the policemen standing idly by her and slammed him into the table behind her. As he stared at her blankly, a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawled out from beneath his uniform and onto his face. Ignoring it, she focused her attention on his vitae which she could now see very faintly. The gunmetal gray light pulsating through his veins was spiderwebbed over by thin tendrils of dark blue vitae. The tendrils spilled out from a singular dark blue sphere embedded into his body at his shoulder. The spore.
Flannery lifted the butter knife in her free hand and poured her vitae around its blade and in-between its atoms. She then drove it into the man’s shoulder. It slipped past his clothes and skin like they weren’t even there.
In the instant the pink of the blade touched the spore embedded there, however, the spore shattered into dust, taking the vine-like tendrils along with it and leaving only his gray vitae behind. At the same time, a network of dark pink lines cracked up along the skin of the man’s face and touched the scorpion tattoo resting on his cheek. As soon as the pink touched its tail, the scorpion tattoo fragmented and then disintegrated into nothing.
The man jolted, blinking rapidly before shaking his head and staring up at her in confusion. “Who—” He glanced down at the knife in his chest. “Saints—”
“Calm down. It’s not in ya the way y’think it is.” She studied him. “What’s yer name?”
“Z-Zwingli. Leonhard Zwingli,” he stammered, eyes wide as his gaze flicked around the room in confusion. “What’s going on—”
“What’s your raison d’être?”
“The one thought that keeps pushing at the back of your head no matter what.”
The thought that Scorpio scooped up from the bottom of his mind and firmly cultivated until it sprouted into a firm, infallible tree.
“A… teacher. ‘I have to become a teacher‘,” Zwingli whispered after a beat before his eyes widened like saucers. “Saints… I… my family… why did I say those things—”
Verdict: an acceptable desire to have and pursue until death.
Flannery released him and pulled the knife out from his shoulder. His eyes snapped to the back of his head, and he slumped to the ground unconscious. Not a sign of a stab wound.
Plucking his pistol from his belt, Flannery turned to face the general.
“Well, that was violent.”
“Are y’takin’ the piss out of me? This isn’t funny. Yer forcin’ my hand now, Scorpio.”
Scorpio smiled. “I can’t force anyone to do anything—well, besides when I talk through them like this. But in reality, you know that this truly is all just the passion of the people—”
Flannery fired the gun up to the dome ceiling. The gunmetal bang was followed swiftly by a loud crack! and then a crystalline chime as glass rained down from above. She grabbed ahold of the tablecloth beside her and allowed her vitae to spill out in-between its threads. She pulled the cloth off the table and swirled it into the air where it caught the falling shards which caused her vitae to pass onto them. Whipping the cloth around, she flung the vitae-lined shards out in all directions.
The shards crashed against the walls and pierced into and through the bodies of the surrounding military police officers, passing through their shoulders, chests, abdomens, limbs, and exiting out of their backsides. With a collective thump, the officers collapsed to the ground unmoving.
The dark blue light emitting from their bodies dimmed to nothing as the remaining shards clattered onto the floor. It was quite beautiful—seeing the true color of their vitae beginning to shine out from beneath Scorpio’s disintegrating web.
Only one figure remained standing and bleeding out that dark blue light. It was the general, still perched at the threshold.
“Oh.” Scorpio’s smile grew instead of faltering. “Well, welcome back then, Libra.”
He wanted this.
Flannery ran up onto the table, charged forward, and then leapt at him without skipping a beat. She gouged her butter knife into the dark blue spot she saw pulsating above his stomach. And as he fell backwards, she successfully pierced through the spore which shattered along with its tendrils. When they hit the ground together, the general’s eyes flew open and he looked around in confusion.
“What’s yer name?” she asked, keeping the knife in place.
“Kristoffer Levshin,” he replied before his eyes widened with realization then narrowed. “That damned Scorpio! How dare he…” He shook his head before studying her. “Who are you? With ELPIS or Ophiuchus?” He glanced down at the vitae-lined knife. “A saint candidate…” He tensed. “Why can’t I move?”
“It’s a good thing ya can’t move. If ya could, I might accidentally knick ya and blast your vitae particles apart. But first thing’s first, Krist.” She studied his face. “You should know how Scorpio operates. Now my question t’you is what is the one thought pounding at the back of yer head?”
Kristoffer’s eyes narrowed, then widened. “… ‘kill the Kaiser’.”
Of course. The desire for power—even if the intention was pure—could drive someone to that extent.
Verdict: an unacceptable desire to have and act on.
Flannery dragged the vitae-coated blade up along the man’s chest and touched one of the pulsating veins of aquamarine vitae flowing near his heart. It immediately fragmented and then shattered to pieces in a burst of dark pink light. The fragmentation continued outwards, spreading along those veins until it bled up to the surface of his skin. Kristoff’s face folded into solemn acceptance before his entire body shattered into nothingness.
Flannery bowed her head before standing and surveying the room of groaning officers.
Time to judge the rest.
As soon as Flannery stepped outside of the dome building, she looked up to the sky. She could barely see wisps of vitae from the city’s residents smoking up towards the darkening skyline.
She turned her attention forward.
Entangled threads of dark blue vitae networked across the square in a web-like array. They crisscrossed each other and grew far out into the dark—most likely with some even extending across the country.
Flannery was certain if she followed one of these threads, she would find a spore. And she was certain that if she looked hard enough, she would be able to find a collection of threads all bleeding out in the same direction. At the end of those threads, she knew she would find one of Scorpio’s towers.
Flannery’s mind drifted to Alice, Gabrielle, and Talib. She was certain that Scorpio wouldn’t turn his eyes on them just yet, but she still felt inclined to reach out to them. However, that would be an act of bias, and there were more important things to deal with.
And so she headed back to the villa to recollect herself. On her way there, whenever she encountered one of Scorpio’s spores embedded in a person, she would cut it out of them and promptly dissect what thought Scorpio had brought to the surfaces of their minds. Then she’d make her judgment.
It was a tiring exercise since she wasn’t quite used to exerting herself as ‘Flannery’. And so, as she finally stepped into her villa, she was tempted to just sink into a hot bathtub in the dark and call it a day. When she slinked into the kitchen, however, she found the v-lights already on and the space occupied. Alice and Gabrielle were seated at the table.
“There ya guys are! I was gettin’ worried.” Flannery greeted them cheerily, hiding the knife and pistol behind her back. “What’ve you been up ta? Some serious peacekeepin’ business keepin’ ya out—”
“Flannery,” Alice stated flatly, “we need to talk.”
“… Is this some kinda intervention?” Flannery chuckled.
“Flannery,” Gabrielle drew slowly, “we just have some questions for you.”
Then Flannery saw the twisting, pale tangerine light wavering by the opposite threshold leading to the bedrooms. Her heart fell. It felt like betrayal.
“So y’know then,” Flannery murmured.
Alice’s eyes narrowed—which hurt to see—as Gabrielle tensed.
Theta—Vega—stepped forward out of the dark without speaking.
An incorrect initiation—Flannery could tell by the way the veins of white light within him bled into a tangerine hue. But it looked like somehow a balance had been achieved—even if just by a margin.
“Nice t’see ya, Vega.”
“Yer sufferin’. I can see that clearly,” Flannery continued. “I’ve been lookin’ in t’ya since what happened in Gemini. Right now, yer a wealthy young businessman who owns a coupla spots in the Twin Cities—on the surface. In reality, yer a crime leader for Gemini’s underbelly.” She pointed to the pistol she could see glinting at his waist. “Never thought I’d see y’carry somethin’ like that. It really is a bad match.”
Theta studied her before chuckling—oddly musical—and touching the pistol. “That’s quite some greeting.”
Flannery could feel Alice’s gaze pricking her skin, but she tried her best to ignore it and said, “I never thought ya’d work with peacekeepers, Vega. Is it Altair then—”
“Omicron is gone,” Theta interjected. “That’s not what I’m here for.” He pointed to the knife behind her back. “I can see you’ve decided to act against Scorpio now. Good. Scorpio has infected a True Conductor who is at risk of dying because of the infection. I’m here to ask you to help them.”
Flannery closed her gaping mouth. “Yer askin’ me t’help ya help a True Conductor…? Where did yer pride go?”
Theta held out a hand to her. A formal business-like offering of a handshake. Not something she was used to seeing from him. “Pride really means little in the long run,” he said.
Flannery paced up to him and scanned his face. He didn’t flinch back and merely studied her in return. Then, she extended her hand—
—and sent her vitae-laden blade into his abdomen. When she pulled the blade out, he let out a faint gasp and doubled over with a grimace.
Alice snapped to her feet and rushed to his side. “What did you do, Flannery?!”
“I temporarily separated Vega’s vitae from this young man here. I want t’talk ta Vega alone,” Flannery explained. “Best get away from ‘em, Alice. Vega’s never been particularly sociable or friendly.”
Before Alice could respond, Theta shoved her back and gripped his head. Then he stiffened and unfurled himself with a flattening expression.
“You were incorrectly initiated,” Flannery explained in Ophiuchian. “I’ve separated your vitae from the person you were initiated into, so I can speak just to you. It’s me. Libra.”
“I see.” Vega showed no surprise and looked around the room. “So this is the new world.”
Vega had always been mysterious like that. In all of the iterations Flannery had encountered of them in the past—even the very first one—she’d never been able to really deduce what was on their mind… which was why she was surprised that Vega had come here to her so openly requesting help.
“Ophiuchus is gone, and a peacekeeping organization took its place.” Flannery indicated Alice and Gabrielle who stood tense to Vega’s right. “Those two there are with the new organization.”
“I suppose what happened to Ophiuchus was your work then.” Vega glanced at the two, then at their armbands. “Although calling oneself a peacekeeper is the epitome of arrogance, which I am certain is a trait of people whom you are very familiar with, Libra. I see your sense of irony remains unchanged.”
“You came here askin’ for my help t’save a True Conductor,” Flannery provided in Common. “Felt fine with workin’ with those two peacekeepers even though part of their job is t’use conductors and protect reservoirs.”
“I see.” Vega pulled out the knife from their belt after eyeing the pistol there and then dragged the blade across their bare palm. Then they pressed their conductor-gloved hand to the area which lit up with very pale tangerine—almost white—light. “So this time, I have become a fool.”
“What did ya do?” Flannery asked when the light faded.
“Someone requested for my gates to be opened, and so I opened them,” Vega replied in Common, before looking up at her. “Why did you separate my vitae?” A glance to Gabrielle and Alice, then a sigh. “I see. You wish to prove a point. You are still like a child.”
“Well, what if I decided t’kill ya here instead of just separatin’ ya like this?”
“Then I would accept what was to come,” Vega replied evenly. “There is enough left of me to return to my resistor. If not, then that would be the end. Nothingness. The others would fulfill our purpose in my stead.”
Flannery continued, “Scorpio’s taken over this country and is usin’ the people t’create another reservoir by stirrin’ up some tension. A buncha Capricornians here’ll take up arms, use conductors, kill each other. That seems t’be the plan for the most part.”
“And you are deciding on how to act because you are uncertain of how much of this is Capricorn and how much of this is Scorpio. Your lack of action remains the same even now.”
“What’s yer plan then?”
“Those infected Capricornians cannot be allowed to spread Scorpio’s spores. The reservoir cannot be allowed to form. What already has been made must be destroyed. And that is for both of them.” Vega turned to Alice and Gabrielle. “As long as you continue to create and use reservoirs and conductors, we will act accordingly.”
“Ya’ll do it just like that? Consequences be damned?”
“Are you to offer your assistance?” Vega pressed, turning back to Flannery, gaze unyielding. “I understand the consequences. I cannot speak for you, Libra, but the other candidates do not appear to grasp this concept.”
Remaining silent, Flannery resisted grimacing. It was hard to forget Vega had been her teacher in one of her lifetimes. That gloomy, disappointed gaze was burned into the back of her head.
Vega continued, “Then, that is the resulting choice that must be made. But, you know, in the end, they will return to the cycle. Nothing is lost.”
“And when this happens again?”
“Then we will handle it just the same.”
Flannery pointed her knife at Vega and nodded at Gabrielle and Alice. “This is who yer workin’ with. ELPIS doesn’t view life the same way ya do. Doesn’t have the same values as ya do. They’re dangerous—”
“And what about you?” Gabrielle challenged.
Before Flannery could answer, Vega doubled over again with a grimace, clutching their head, then their abdomen. Flannery could see the flow of white and tangerine intertwining in the space at their stomach where she’d just separated them.
Alice caught Theta before he fell. “Francis, do you know where you are? Are you hurt?
Theta grimaced, clutching his abdomen and studying Alice’s face. “Yes, I’m fine. I know. There is no pain, Miss Kingsley.” He then looked up at Flannery, frown tightening.
Flannery met his gaze. “My judgment is that your current state is more favorable in the long term. Death is not near a suitable punishment for your numerous transgressions if we consider all of them collectively. Living with your transgressions in this state is suitable sentencing for now.”
“You’re not as unbiased as you try to be, Libra,” Theta returned before tensing and turning to the other two. “Gabrielle, Alice, I’m sorry. I… I believe I opened my gates for Gamma and the others. I believe they’ve taken P.D. Oran and—”
“What?!” Gabrielle snapped to a stand.
Alice’s eyes narrowed. “What about Talib, Roberto, and the prince who were with him?”
“I’m uncertain,” Theta replied, flexing his conductor. “I’ll see if I can—”
“If y’try openin’ yer gates again before yer all sealed up, Vega,” Flannery interjected, “you’ll just split yerself further. I cut deep enough that y’should probably see a Transmutationist before thinkin’ of usin’ a conductor. Ya don’t wanna end up like how you were a couple months ago, do ya?”
Theta tensed, but didn’t glare as he lowered his conductor-gloved hand.
“Why?” Gabrielle asked.
“I can’t have ya jumpin’ around as y’please, y’know?” Flannery replied. “It’s not safe and not just for you.”
“Okay… that’s fair. It’s always annoying when civilians get in the way. I get it.” Gabrielle nodded, hands raised. “… Look. We all still trust you, Flannery. My intuition is that we have the same goal. We’ve been working together all this time. Knowing that you’re part of this whole thing doesn’t change that.” She extended her hand as she eyed the knife. “We can still work this out. Alice, Talib—the whole gang.”
There it was. Those milky words promising camaraderie and good endings. The same words that had probably lured Talib and Alice in. And the Wtoreks too. Words like poison. But that thought was bias.
“Right now, I’m not concerned with P.D. Oran or the True Conductors or even Capricornians like you are,” Flannery said, turning around and heading towards the door. “Right now, I’ve got t’see how far Scorpio’s plannin’ on takin’ this and how much of it is just a farce game. I’d ask ya t’leave this country, but I know you won’t—”
A burst of magenta flames throttled between her and the doorway. When she turned, Flannery found that Gabrielle’s conductor-gloved hand was extended and still sparking with magenta embers.
“Well, it’d reflect pretty poorly on us peacekeepers if we didn’t do our job and keep the peace,” Gabrielle said with a lazy smile. “I’m serious. We can figure this out together—”
But Flannery didn’t reflect the smile back. “Let me ask ya all a question. Do any of y’know where Scorpio is right now?”
“I doubt Scorpio is even in this country,” Theta replied. “They’ve always hidden themselves and played from behind the curtain.”
Flannery sighed. “Things change, Theta. I’m sure yer realizin’ that now. People change—especially if they’ve been here long enough… The way yer all answerin’ is just tellin’ me yer all in over your head.” She nodded at Alice and Gabrielle. “At least, ya both are. Yer dealin’ with people—” she gestured to Theta “—and things ya don’t understand.”
Flames curled at Gabrielle’s palm as she demanded calmly, “Then explain it—”
“Gabrielle,” Alice pressed. “Calm down.”
Flannery tightened her grip on her knife and slammed the blade down into the table in front of her. The pink vitae coating the blade spilled out onto the table’s surface and sent cracks along its body. The cracks formed cracks that crumbled away in a burst of dark pink. When the light faded, there was nothing of it left. A warning.
Gabrielle and Alice stared, wide-eyed and tense. Theta remained impassive.
“I’m sorry, Gabrielle, but y’have no true authority here. Never have. This peackeepin’ business is all part of the scripted stage.” Flannery narrowed her eyes. “Y’wax lyrical about bringin’ true peace to Signum, but how many people do y’think have said that already?”
Frowning, Gabrielle lowered her conductor. Alice, on the other hand, gave Flannery only a disappointed look.
Flannery chuckled with a grimace and brushed past the threshold that she knew she could never cross normally again. “I’ll take care of the rest. It’s my duty to. I promise.”
It wasn’t hard to find Leona.
All Flannery had to do was find the opposite end of the dark blue threads of vitae protruding from the spores of the infected peacekeepers wandering around the city—most of whom she cut the spore out of and judged as she encountered. Eventually, the threads led her to a conservatory in the east end of the city.
As she wandered through the foliage of succulents, ferny leaves, and exotic flowers within, she allowed herself to enjoy the warm haze and the faint wisps of vitae bleeding out from the plants. Eventually, she followed the dark blue threads of vitae past a thrush of shrubs and into a small clearing.
A group of Capricornian soldiers were clustered there in the small space. One, whose vitae flow was weak, was being attended to by two men. To the right of them stood a Capricornian in a captain’s uniform and three familiar-looking Sagittarians—one of whom whose vitae blazed like the sun. All of them immediately picked up arms.
“Mr. Claire Yuseong?” Ignoring the weapons, Flannery arched a brow.
“Miss Caertas?” Claire stared.
The Capricornians looked to him in confusion.
“She works for a company that my country partners with. We buy conductors from her,” Claire explained. “But…”
A Capricornian with an armband marked with a red cross glanced down at the knife in her hands. “You’re…”
The Capricornian’s vitae had a strange color to it, she realized. While it was mostly mint green in color, there were tiny globules of pure white bubbling up and down in the flow of his vitae.
“Dabih—no Zu?” Flannery realized. “Is that you?”
The man tensed. “I barely remember that name. It’s… Alwin Brandt now. Did Theta send you? The lieutenant—the True Conductor is—”
Flannery held up her hand and continued to follow the thick dark blue threads of vitae to a cluster of bodies laid out across from her. Three of them. Two Capricornians—one was not infected and was tied to a radiator pipe—and one other. Leona.The infected Capricornian was being held by suppression cuffs, and the resulting dark-blue tendrils extending out from the spore sprouting in his arm were very thin and sickly-looking.
Flannery drew out her knife.
“H-Hey, wait…” The glasses-wearing Capricornian standing beside Brandt stepped forward. Before he could say anything else, however, Brandt held him back.
After lining the knife with her vitae once more, Flannery knelt in front of the infected Capricornian and drove the blade through the cuffs and then into the spore in his arm. Once both the spore and the cuffs crumbled to nothing, the Capricornian grunted and opened his eyes before blinking at her in confusion.
“That one thought that’s pressin’ at the back of yer head,” she said in Capricornian. “What is it?”
The Capricornian arched a brow in confusion. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Tell her, Stein,” Brandt urged. “When you attacked, Fischer, what were you thinking?”
After a beat, Stein replied slowly, “‘Protect the prince’…? Wait—what the fuck is going on here?”
“And yer okay with livin’ with that forever?”
Stein paused, tensing before spitting, “Well, I’m not fucking dying anytime soon.”
Flannery pulled the knife out from him.
He collapsed to the ground unconscious, and Brandt rushed to his side.
“He’s no longer connected t’Scorpio,” Flannery explained. “But I doubt he’s gonna be stickin’ around in your service that much longer. Scorpio cultivates an idea in every person he infects, whether or not he’s actively manipulatin’ them. It’s an idea that stays even after the spore is removed.”
“Like what happened with Marionette Engel.” The man in the captain’s uniform approached her, the rifle in his hand pointed to the ground. “You’re the Saint Candidate of Libra then.”
So they knew too. Troublesome. Scorpio lacked nuance and subtlety when he took the stage like this.
“The Saint of the Scales,” Flannery elaborated.
She then turned her attention to Leona where the thick dark blue thread of vitae she’d followed to get here led to. The spore in Leona’s body was much larger than the spores in all the others Flannery had encountered. It consumed Leona’s entire chest—so much so that the suppression cuffs could not dampen the light. Up close now, Flannery could see that many thinner dark blue threads of vitae extended out from the spore in her body and beyond her body—presumably connecting to many more peacekeepers she was acting as the tower for.
Flannery pushed her vitae-coated knife forward through first the chain of the suppression cuffs which shattered into pieces and then through Leona’s chest. When the spore there shattered at her touch, the threads extending out from Leona’s body crumbled away into nothing as well. Now free from the web of blue vitae, Leona’s golden light burst out blindingly like the sun.
Leona’s dull, open eyes cleared; and she locked gazes with Flannery, but said nothing.
“And you?” Flannery asked.
Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Nothing.”
Her tone was flat. Hurt pride, maybe. Disdain, most likely.
Flannery nodded, pulling out the knife from Leona’s chest. Unlike the others before her, Leona did not fall unconscious. And so, Flannery extended a hand.
Leona picked herself up gracefully without accepting the gesture. “I see you’ve finally decided to hold yourself accountable for your role as a saint candidate, Miss Caertas. Much better than Taurus and Virgo.”
The Capricornians tensed.
Bah, Flannery thought. So Leona thought she was just a dosser too.
“It’s been donkey’s years since I saw ya, Leo, and that’s all you have t’say?” Flannery chuckled. “Besides, Taurus is still a kid—”
“You lack your usual elegance and maturity this time,” Leona interjected as she smoothed out her suit and redid her hair, “but I hope you’ve brought another asset instead.”
Flannery studied her impassively. “How much do ya understand about the situation—”
“I was given awareness,” Leona replied. She glanced at the Capricornians, eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “Scorpio has caused a mess in this country…” A smile abruptly touched her lips, and she walked towards and extended a hand out to the captain. “Captain Weingartner, correct?”
Weingartner nodded, not moving to accept the gesture.
“I would like to thank you for your noble actions and your service. Your choices are honorable.” Leona smiled genially, lowering her hand. “I understand you’ve come to access some information that you might have found… unsettling.”
“I would call the fact that we’re being used to create a reservoir more than just unsettling.”
The corners of Leona’s eyes crinkled. “I understand your apprehension, Captain. But until Ophiuchus resolves this current issue, I’d advise you to keep your discretion and remain out of the picture for the time being.” She inclined her head towards the Sagittarians. “And you, Mr. Yuseong, shouldn’t be involving yourself in the affairs of another country. You’re a person of high profile. And now—I’ve come to realize—a person of high importance.”
The prince tensed, and his guards looked at him in confusion.
Leona returned her attention to the Capricornians, continuing, “From my understanding, Captain Weingartner, your actions against the Kaiser and the people of this country have been marked as treasonous. While I understand your circumstances, others do not. Until we get a hold of this situation and can speak on your behalf, you will stay under the radar.”
The injured Capricornian laying on the ground pushed himself up to a sit with some assistance and glowered. “You want us to just sit back and eat popcorn?”
“Wolff,” the captain pressed warningly.
“What is it that you think you can do?” Leona inquired, looking down at him, before glancing at his arm—rather, his missing arm. “You all should be well aware of what your position is.”
“I’m all for taking orders like a dog and turning my brain off,” Wolff grunted, “but it feels weird listening to a Leonian—even if you’re a peacekeeper. No offense but after learning everything, I’m not sure if you have the interests of Capricorn in mind—”
“How dare you.” Leona pointed to the ground, amber eyes blazing. “The foundation that you’re standing on was laid down, grown by, and nurtured for by us. We care far more for it than you ever could. Swallow that arrogance or I—”
Flannery stepped forward and placed a hand on Leona’s shoulder. “We should get t’work.”
Leona glanced at Flannery over her shoulder. “It’s quite ironic hearing that from you.” Then she addressed the Capricornians more calmly—“Despite your appearance, you still have value in your own way.” She glanced at Claire and then his guards. “Please do take care, Prince Yuseong.”
With that, she exited through the path in-between the thrushes.
Flannery turned to follow her but—
“Wait—what about Werner?” One of the men sitting beside the injured Capricornian stammered. His accent came out more Geminian than Capricornian. “He’s a True Conductor. Didn’t you come to help him? He’s still infected—”
Flannery turned slightly. “Theta told me about ‘im, but I’ll repeat it for ya. The True Conductor isn’t my priority right now.”
“But True Conductors,” the Geminian urged. “They’re important to you, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they are. But the life of one man isn’t equal to the fate and fairness a country is subjected to.” She looked forward. “If I come across the True Conductor, I’ll do what I can, but I don’t have the time t’be actively searchin’ for ‘im.”
“Capricornians, don’t y’see?” Flannery frowned. “All of this yer doin’ here is just a small part of the bigger picture. All of y’might think this is the end of the world—the end of yer country as y’know it—but… Scorpio’s just havin’ a kick and harvestin’ vitae while he’s at it. This might all just a game.”
“A game?” The captain now.
Without looking back, Flannery continued past the thrushes and left them with, “Sorry t’say this, but it isn’t like a country in Signum hasn’t gone through a revolutionary crumble before.”
That was reality.
“The Saint Candidate of Libra, the Saint of the Scales, should uphold every aspect of our ancestor Libra. Absolute fairness, neutrality, non-bias should be traits they exude. And much like the saint candidates before them, they should pursue the ultimate justice.”
Official Libran Monadic Pages