Alice had bought Jericho the blackbird as a form of therapy during the second year of him being in her care. To nurture another living being taught responsibility and the sanctity of life. Her coworkers, who occasionally shared Jericho as a patient, had thought it a brilliant idea. Deep down, however, Alice had known that she had been showing bias instead of discretion. The distance between patient and doctor quietly and irreverently breached, despite its maintenance being a necessity.
Her decision had not been motivated wholly by logic. She had simply seen Jericho admiring the local birds through the window of his room one day. Seeing him like that had stirred a sense of guilt in her since she’d received news from her department head that they wouldn’t be able to continue to have him in the department’s care due to budgetary concerns. Off to some other facility, he would be sent—which put a sour taste in Alice’s mouth since she knew the department head was aware of the poor conditions and state of such facilities outside of Ophiuchus. This paired with Jericho’s sudden relapse in behavior one day and the news one of her patient’s ‘suicide’ solidified Alice’s decision.
To this day, Alice still didn’t quite understand it. One evening, she had visited Jericho for one of their sessions only to find him glowering at her with an animosity she’d seen only when she’d gotten a glimpse of him when he’d first arrived in Ophiuchus. She’d conjectured that he’d somehow caught word of the ELPIS attack on the royal family of Aries and that had set back his progress.
Only when she’d given him the bird did he stop his glowering. He had been absolutely enamored with the bird, so much so that he’d dedicated his full attention to her when she’d explained how to care for it. He’d even shown great sadness, worry, and concern when the animal—which he’d cleverly named ‘Bird’—had broken its wing after a flight mishap. But then, on a warm evening in the middle of summer, she’d come into his room to find Bird resting in his hands with not only a broken wing but also a broken neck.
Alice had not approached Jericho with anger then—only requested an explanation. Much to her surprise, he had started talking about ‘cycles’ and returning things to the cycle. It was the first time she had heard such a concept from him; and she had to consult her co-workers’ notes for more information. There, she had found it all jotted down absentmindedly in the margins of one of their notes: ‘nothing truly died because everything returned to the cycle.’
It took her some time to gather her own notes, thoughts, and address the matter properly:
“‘You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s dead because it’ll return to the cycle’? Do you really believe that?” She’d looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle,’ it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”
Jericho stared at her. “They… do not return to the cycle?” He stared at Bird in his hands. “Bird will not return to the cycle?”
“It doesn’t matter whether or not Bird returns to the cycle,” Alice had clarified, eyes narrowing. “It won’t be the same. The other birds who care for Bird won’t be the same. There will never be another Bird.”
“I returned people,” Jericho had responded. “With my conductor. The people with me in ELPIS too.” He had stared blankly ahead before his eyes drifted to her face. “What happened to them then? I thought they would return. But if not… then what did I do? I was wrong? I—” His searching gaze had stirred something in Alice’s chest.
After a moment, she had managed to gather her thoughts and settled on: “Forced ignorance is not willful ignorance. It wasn’t your fault back then, Jericho. But now that you know, it will be your responsibility. Do you understand?”
Jericho’s brows had furrowed, reaching out for her arm with his hand. “No.”
Alice had pulled away. “If you don’t understand it, then you should refrain from using your conductor. Never act without understanding.”
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
The rain was pouring down in sheets. Perhaps if it was any other circumstance, Alice Kingsley would have been reminded of home. Now, as she ran through Die Hauptstadt’s abandoned streets, it only registered as a nuisance. She’d already exchanged her high heels for a pair of boots she’d found discarded carelessly on the corner of a street earlier, but they were two sizes too large so running with them was difficult.
“How many of your patients relapsed back into the same old patterns, Alice?” Talib—no, Scorpio—had pressed when they’d been back beneath the leaking dome of the convention. “As you say, ‘the only person who can help yourself is you,’ so what are you even trying to do?”
Alice knew those had been merely words intended to incite a reaction. By belittling her work, Scorpio had hoped to whittle her will and confidence away. It was textbook. She also knew that it was not Talib but Scorpio saying those words, but the taunts still twisted her stomach.
The fact that Scorpio had led them go so freely also put her at unease. The memory of the pieces of his—Talib’s—imploded skull slowly fitting back together haunted her when she closed her eyes. It defied everything she understood about human biology—about humanity.
Obviously, there had to be some means for saint candidates to ‘die’ in order for their vitae to be passed on to another candidate—but given the extremities of a candidate’s capabilities, she knew they were nowhere near able to pull a feat like that off. So, rather than all of them leaving the convention intending to find a secondary solution to their problems, it seemed more like they were fleeing from him. And Scorpio surely lavished in that idea.
Alice knew her original purpose as a peacekeeper here was to evaluate the Augen movement and report any signs of potential threat and danger to the peace in Signum. She had obviously failed in that aspect. Just like, by not seeing and realizing the obvious, she had failed Flannery, Talib, Olive, and—no.
A shadow flitted ahead, causing Alice to duck behind the side of a building. Francis’s empty proto-conductor felt cold in her palm as she pressed against the wall with bated breath. She’d tried to use the proto-conductor numerous times already but with little result. She’d ended up popping out of random areas in the city instead of her desired destination. She’d taken the proto-conductor from Gabrielle earlier when the woman had decided to split off and check on the safety of the diplomats who were apparently set to leave this evening at the train station. Gabrielle’s priorities were clear.
“You’re still trying to be peacekeepers?” Scorpio had chucked at this. “I guess we’re all habitual creatures even if it’s meaningless. Ophiuchus is a puppet.”
Alice still wasn’t certain if Scorpio’s implication of Ophiuchus’s involvement and knowledge of the vitae conversion process was the truth. Scorpio’s intention in saying such things was to make them feel as if their efforts were meaningless. However, even if it were true that chairs of Ophiuchus knew of saint candidates and vitae conversion as Scorpio said—which in itself would partially explain how it had remained hidden for so long—it didn’t immediately imply that the entirety of Ophiuchus was involved.
Alice let out a quiet breath, watched as it fogged up the cool air, and re-centered her racing thoughts.
Although that was a pressing issue, at the moment it was a distant issue. The most prominent issue here for Alice now was Jericho. Her concern centered mostly around him gaining knowledge about the truth of conductors. If there was no one there—or perhaps if the wrong person was there—to help him process that revelation then…
The painful pops of gunfire peppered right by Alice’s ear as bullets chiseled away at the stone of the street. She squeezed her eyes shut as memories of huddling together with Talib and Flannery beneath bombardments whirled through her mind. Once the pattering rain was all she could hear, Alice returned to reality, opened her eyes, and peered around the corner. Faintly through the mist rolling down the street, she caught sight of the retreating slick back of a v-ehicle she hadn’t seen in years: a tank with a squarish body and a mounted v-cannon at its forefront.
When it disappeared from her sight fully, she pulled out from her hiding place. She continued down the road quickly, pausing only when a whimpering reached her ears. Alice stopped short and turned towards the sound just as she neared the street corner.
Nestled in the arch of a doorway was a young boy in suspenders and a cap that was soaked thoroughly through with the rain. The boy was draped over the pale, prostrate, unmoving body of a young woman in an evening dress.
Alice darted over to them and sank to the woman’s side. The woman’s dress was riddled with bullet holes, while red stained the blue ribbon tied into a bow at the front of her chest. Her neck was bent at an awkward angle, her glassy and open eyes filled with rainwater.
The boy blubbered in Capricornian but it was nothing coherent.
Something warm splattered onto Alice’s face as she tried to comprehend the scene. Upon looking upwards, she spied a deep blue Augen flag that was also riddled with bullet holes hanging from the highest window. A streak of red that ran down the flag was steadily dripping down onto her face. The banister hidden just behind the flag was soaked in the same color.
Alice concluded that this woman had been hit by a stray bullet because she had been standing behind the Augen flag and had subsequently fallen here. Dead upon or before impact. A civilian. An accidental casualty.
“Is this your mother?” Alice asked the boy in Capricornian.
“M-Mutti…” the boy whimpered.
“I understand you’re afraid,” Alice drew, extending her conductor-gloved hand, “but we need to leave now.”
The boy shook his head, drawing close to his mother’s corpse and clinging tightly.
“Your mother is dead,” Alice informed him calmly. “She died trying to protect you. Let’s not waste her efforts.”
The boy’s tears simply came out harder, and his wails nearly drowned out the rain. Before Alice could think of another solution, a burst of pale tangerine light warmed her back. Upon turning, she found Francis hovering just behind her. She tensed at the sight of him.
Offering her a nod, Francis sank to a crouch in front of the child, reached forward, and wiped a tear from the boy’s cheek. “Your mother has returned to the cycle, but I will still take her somewhere safe. Will you allow me to take you somewhere safe as well?”
The boy sniffled, then nodded.
Francis swept the boy into his arms and returned the boy’s death-like cling gently. “When kids are pulled into the fights that adults start, then that’s when you know you’re beating down the wrong path.” He rose up to a stand with the boy in tow. “That’s common sense, isn’t it? But there are some causes that people believe are important enough to ignore that common sense.” He glanced at her, smiling thinly. “I suppose I’m talking about us in ELPIS too.”
“And what do you plan on doing with that boy?”
Francis frowned, seeming to understand her implication. “I’ll take him somewhere safe. Once things settle in this country, I’ll find his family and return him to their care. If they have a home, they should be returned to their home. But right now it’s too dangerous.”
Alice stood up. “I tried reaching you earlier. Scorpio was Talib. He was hiding in plain view the entire time. He revealed himself at the convention.”
Francis’s gaze narrowed. “Mr. Al-Jarrah? That’s a shame…” He lowered his head. “I apologize. My focus was on finding Maria—rather, the peacekeeper. I didn’t think to pay attention to the convention… Where is Nico?”
Alice studied his face. “He went with the Capricornians.”
Francis relaxed slightly, his expression returning to its impassiveness. “I apologize for not getting to you sooner.” He turned to her, extending his hand. “I’ve found him. The suitcase peacekeeper. Agent Jericho. The situation isn’t looking too good. Miss Law said to come to you regarding him, but I’m not sure your presence or words will suffice. Although… I believe your suppression cuffs, in this case, will be especially useful.” He pointed to her conductor-gloved hand. “And perhaps that thing as well.”
* * *
After Francis dropped the boy off at some place he wouldn’t disclose to her, he took Alice through his gate. Passing through it again brought Alice back unpleasant memories of her time in the Twin Cities.
Personally, Alice did not hold Francis or Theta in high regard. Francis Foxman—although he hid it well—was the leader of a criminal organization operating out of the Twin Cities, after all. Theta, on the other hand, was a terrorist—perhaps even a cultist. Theta had been the one to hold her for ransom too, while a past version of Theta had been the one who had taken Jericho in. Although Alice felt some form of sympathy for Francis, she held less for Theta. Ironically, from her observations, she concluded that it was ‘Theta’ that disinclined Francis from acts of reckless violence.
Gabrielle’s ease working with less than savory parties like this had always put Alice at unease but this alliance was pushing boundaries and felt unsaintly. Just being near the man put Alice on edge. Right now his calm, collected lack of urgency was unsettling and signaled a sense of detachment which didn’t help the discomfort she felt around him.
“What makes a peacekeeper a good peacekeeper?” Scorpio had goaded. “Is it rigidity of morals or flexibility or morals? Flexibility or rigidity in beliefs? Does a good peacekeeper keep their standards the same when facing a group with different values or does a good peacekeeper adapt their standards to the situation? Well, in one case, you would be the perfect peacekeeper, Alice. In the other case, you would be the worst. The opposite goes for you, Frau Law.”
“You can open your eyes. We’re here.”
Alice hadn’t realized that she had been squeezing her eyes shut, but she didn’t need to open her eyes to know of their arrival. She could feel it in the air. There was a heaviness yet an electricity to it that made it suffocating.
Alice opened her eyes.
Toppled buildings missing either their top halves or sides barely stood on their legs around her. Smoke rose from them as thinning, faint off-white lines either dulled into nothing in the remaining stone walls or spread further and ate away at each brick. The street beneath her feet was scorched with claw-like marks and riddled with bullet holes.
“This way,” Francis said as he led her down the street. “I found the peacekeeper at the Kaiser’s rally. Gamma and the others were there too—their intentions were most likely to execute the Kaiser publicly due to his involvement and his property as a tower… Jericho most likely was tracking them. In the chaos, the Kaiser escaped—if you have lingering concerns about him.”
Eventually, Francis led her out from the street onto a narrow, metal bridge. Two familiar-looking men were standing at the bridge’s mid-section looking down the left-side railings. Klaus Kleine and Gilbert Wolff, if Alice recalled correctly. The last time she had seen Leutnant Wolff was when they’d been below the city. It had only been a night or two ago since then, but it felt like an eternity, especially since the leutnant was now clearly missing an arm.
Alice followed both men’s gazes to a v-tram that was rolling just below the bridge.
Wtorek Izsak—no, Gamma—stood on one end of the rain-slick v-tram. Behind him was a man barely identifiable as P.D. Oran. The bandages wrapped around the latter man’s arms and legs were weeping and soaked through.
Alice grimaced as the memory of the Ariesian prince standing in that blazing crimson inferno flashed through her mind. She folded it away and glanced to the other end of the tram.
On that end stood a familiar man dressed in a military police officer’s uniform—Tau. Beside him stood a woman Alice recalled seeing accompanying Gamma: Beta. White tendrils of vitae protruded from a large gash running down the woman’s forearm. Behind the both of them sat an almost unrecognizable Dämon Fortschritt, hair dampened, lab coat stained with mud. And yet, despite her less than put-together appearance, Dämon’s eyes were bright, her body tipped forward, and her mouth slightly parted. Fascination.
The object of her fascination seemed to be the man who stood in-between both ELPIS leaders at the center of the v-tram roof. Alice recognized him immediately from his body language: the stiffness, the rigidity, the tenseness—like a dam waiting to break. The off-white whip of vitae pouring out from his steaming conductor was the final identifier. Jericho.
Every other second, Beta would send out a tendril of white towards Jericho which he would simply disintegrate into nothing with a whip of his conductor. The sound that both lights made when crashing up against each other was something in-between a screech and a whine. The bullets Gamma and Tau fired off at Jericho met the same fate. The one who held the advantage was obvious.
As the v-tram rolled beneath them, Francis briskly walked to the opposite side of the bridge. As the tram came out from under that end, he dribbled his blood from a cut on his bare palm over the railings onto the tram. Gilbert joined Francis with a grimace. Instead of observing the tram with Francis, however, Gilbert dragged his body over the rails and made to fling himself down at the v-tram.
Alice darted to his side, grabbed him, and pulled him back down before he jumped—at least, she tried to. He was a rather muscular man, so the weight of him throwing himself off the bridge nearly took her down with him. Thankfully, Kleine grabbed her around the waist and pulled them both back up with a grunt. Once they were all collapsed back on the bridge safely, Gilbert stared at her.
“You’re the peacekeeper,” he noted as if just noticing her presence. “Lending us a helping hand finally?”
Alice frowned at him from where she sat panting. Despite the cold rain, his cheeks were deeply flushed and his eyes were half-glazed.
“Don’t be a fool, Herr Wolff,” she returned calmly in his native tongue. “You’re in no condition to do anything at the moment. Look at yourself. Stay here.”
Gilbert paled as if he’d been slapped, then grumbled, “Well, you peacekeepers sure are tactful.” He nodded over the railings. “Where’s the ELPIS Department when you need them? Normally I’d say to hell with those ELPIS bastards, but that guy is blasting out his vitae like he’s popping a damn champagne bottle. Werner’s looking more and more like shit with every second. Whoever that is, he’s dangerous and out of his mind.”
“T-That’s not Maria anymore, Agent Kingsley,” Kleine stammered, shaking the water from his glasses as he joined them. “It’s—”
Alice wiped her glasses too. “I know who it is.”
Kleine’s lips thinned.
Francis dribbled some of his blood onto the ground, then sank down, and pressed his gloved hand against the rainwater-diluted pool of red. The puddle lit up with murky pale tangerine light as did a spot on the v-tram behind Jericho’s back in front of Tau and Beta.
But Francis sank into the light before Alice could stop him. As she expected, when Alice peered over the railings she saw Jericho abruptly swivel around and send out a whip of his vitae out towards the glowing tangerine gate on the v-tram behind him. A terrible, metallic screech filled the air as the colors clashed against each other. Both vitae shattered with a burst of blinding light.
Francis flew back out from the gate he’d entered beside Alice and then cracked against the opposite railings. Kleine darted after him and steered him.
“A-Are you okay?” Kleine stammered. “What happened?”
“There is no pain,” Francis reassured him as he accepted the gesture and brushed himself off. “The suitcase peacekeeper broke apart the vitae particles that made up the exit gate. When there’s no exit, the only way is back… which is most likely why Gamma and the others haven’t made it through any of my gates.”
“So… Scorpio is just using whoever that is to add more to the reservoir?” Kleine asked tentatively. “And to take down ELPIS? Is that what he’s trying to do? Or is this all just…”
Francis’s eyes narrowed. “Bleaching of the vitae makes it impossible to return to the cycle. This property also makes it so that the probability of elevating vitae to the higher level is significantly lower. Our conductors paired with the way we conduct further decrease that rate. But the color of Jericho’s vitae now…” He shook his head. “Regardless, I believe all Scorpio is doing now is putting on a show.”
Alice could see that clearly. She grimaced, clenching her conductor-gloved fist, then eyed the pistol strapped to Francis’s side.
Another terrible screeching sound filled the air as a tendril of white light shot up to the sky only to disintegrate into nothing a second later.
Francis abruptly came up beside Alice and said, “I understand that ELPIS is your enemy. I understand you view us as terrorists. I understand you don’t like me as either Francis or Theta because of what we’ve done to you and what we are. I apologize although I know my apology means little. But I am…” He frowned. “…here to help—admittedly for reasons separate from yours, I’m sure. Gamma is the only one initiated who knows everything about the syzygy. We need him alive in the long run—”
“If what you need is a distraction so you can get them, then just say it.”
Francis’s eyes widened before his expression fell flat. “I need a distraction.”
Alice nodded before popping above the railings and shouting, “Jericho!”
“Crazy woman,” Gilbert hissed between gritted teeth, as if he hadn’t just been about to launch himself down at the man.
Jericho paused and looked over his shoulder towards Alice and then through her. His distant gaze was familiar and reminded her of the first time she’d ever seen him. Still, she held his gaze—although she tensed when she saw Beta lift her hand and send white tendrils into the air.
Before the tendrils could strike, Francis sank back into his gate. He reappeared behind Jericho’s back and pulled Tau, Beta, and Fortschritt back into the gate. Although Alice felt a draft of cold air behind her, she didn’t turn and instead continued to hold Jericho’s gaze. She supposed she would have held his attention for hours if Gamma hadn’t so obviously stiffened at Francis’s reappearance and disappearance.
Jericho whipped around and registered that the trio was no longer behind him before flinging his whip conductor back out at Gamma. Just before the tip of the whip made contact, Francis reappeared in front of Gamma and shoved the man down out of the whip’s way. The whip of off-white continued along its path, crashing against the buildings to the left, scoring off-white cracks into them. The cracks expanded and ate away at the brick and mortar and as structures gave way, falling into dust and rubble.
The rainfall was too loud for Alice to tell if anyone had still been inside. She felt faint. She knew Jericho was always reckless when it came to ELPIS. This was why she had been so against him taking up cases in the first place. A chance encounter could lead to disaster and destruction. She had thought that perhaps by joining with Gabrielle, he could find a new purpose and goal to strive for. After the Twin Cities incident, she’d even seen signs of improvement in Jericho’s obsession. But perhaps all that had been was the influence of these other ‘True Conductors’ he was connected with. Regardless, it was still progress. But now all of it was—
Before Jericho could raise his conductor again, Francis reappeared and dragged Gamma and Oran down through the gate. Alice pulled away from the railings as another burst of air brushed against her back and turned to find Gamma pointing his gun at Francis, who remained just as impassive as he had been when facing him earlier.
Beta snapped at Gamma, “This is not the time to be doing this.”
Alice looked over to Oran then Forstchritt who were being pinned down by Tau. Both conductor engineers were in poor condition—covered in bruises and panting heavily. Getting them out here safely for questioning was a priority.
Beta continued, “We need to handle the True Conduc—”
A spear of off-white light abruptly penetrated the bridge from below in-between where Francis and Gamma stood. White cracks immediately spread along the metalwork of the bridge.
Alice’s stomach flip-flopped as the bridge fell away beneath her, and she was sent tumbling through the air. She barely had the time to blink before her entire body jolted and her limbs seized as she cracked against the road below. She lay there for a moment, winded, eyes blurred, face pelted by rain, ears ringing as she tried to get a hold of her situation. Ignoring the pounding in her back, she rolled onto her stomach and dragged herself up into a crawling position. Scattered pieces of glass presumably from nearby buildings were embedded into her forearm, but she ignored the pain. The crackle of Jericho’s conductor reached her ears before the light of it reached her eyes.
Jericho was standing less than half a meter away from Oran who had hit the ground far from where the ELPIS leaders and the Capricornians had fallen behind Alice. Slowly, like a predator stalking its prey, Jericho crept on towards Oran who whimpered and began to drag himself away.
“Jericho!” Alice shouted, stumbling up to a stand. “That’s enough! Stop it now! Look at me!”
Jericho paused and turned to stare at her, then through her. “Alice. I know how to obtain it now.” The conductor crackled in his hand. “I need to excise all evil in order to bring peace to Signum. Everything fake and false needs to be removed. Conductors, false peacekeepers, false hope. People can be good then. Nothing to fight over. Everything is clear. When everything is gone.”
Alice’s stomach churned as she became aware of the rain seeping into her skin. Shivering in the cold, she managed, “Jericho… you’re being fed that nonsense by a powerful Manipulator. We talked about this. It’s not that simple.”
Jericho nodded slowly. “Everyone is trying to manipulate me—manipulate everyone. First ELPIS and Theta, then the peacekeepers.” His eyes flitted to the side again.
Realization dawned on Alice as she followed his gaze and found only empty space. Not too much was known about living manipulation since it was outlawed, but the possibility that a Manipulator could influence the senses was not completely unsound. The human brain itself was not fully understood, after all.
“Jericho…” she drew, inching towards him with a placating hand, “what are you seeing right now?”
He glanced at her then looked around. “Sand. There’s sand everywhere. The sun is still in the east. Morning.” He glanced to the side. “Talib is here. Ayda too.”
Hearing his name felt like a knife to the chest. But Ayda—Jericho had mentioned her before. Ayda was a girl who had been indoctrinated with him.
“Jericho,” Alice said calmly, continuing forward, feeling the rain seep in-between the metal and glass tubes of her glove conductor, “it’s raining. There’s no sand here. We’re in Capricorn. Whatever you’re seeing isn’t real.”
Jericho’s gaze flitted to the side again.
“Jericho, look at me.”
His gaze refocused on her.
“You promised me. We compromised. I wanted you to stop using your conducting on living things. You wanted to pursue ELPIS. We agreed that you would not use your conductor unless you were facing an actual ELPIS member. Oran isn’t with ELPIS.”
“Right. Promise.” Jericho stared at the conductor in his hands before he slowly lowered it—but didn’t extinguish it. He covered his mouth and began to hack and cough, blood seeping between his pale fingers. Before Alice could digest the sight, he sank to his knees and wrapped his hands around Oran’s neck. “I need to return him properly.”
Alice started forward in alarm, but froze as Jericho turned to glower at her. The whip of his conductor sizzled along the ground and lazily spread white cracks along the gray walkway, while its hilt smoked in the cold rain.
He still hadn’t gone all the way, Alice tried to reassure herself. At least not without his conductor. She could still salvage this—
“I told you,” she said. “Even if something returns to the cycle, it won’t be the same. If you want justice, then you hold those people accountable. How can they be held accountable if you—”
“You are defending him,” Jericho interjected, searching her face. He tightened his grip on both his conductor and Oran’s neck causing the man to flail desperately beneath him. “Even though he is evil.”
Alice tensed, inching even closer. “Jerich—”
A burst of pale tangerine light opened up below Jericho and Oran. Only the latter man fell through the formed gate, leaving Jericho to claw at the ground. Alice searched the clearing for Oran but couldn’t find him. She startled back to attention when Jericho leapt to his feet. He turned around with his conductor in hand; but when he registered the man standing behind him, he froze like a statue.
“Theta…” Jericho realized, eyes wide.
The sky lit up with a crack of lightning and illuminated the snake tattoo on Francis’s face and the scorpion tattoo crawling across Jericho’s.
Jericho put a hand over his chest and began to chant in a language Alice only understood because Jericho had recently transcribed to her its meaning:
“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only a cycle.
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all began—”
Francis frowned then interjected, “That’s only something that should be said when you’re preparing to return something living to the cycle. “
“I am,” Jericho stated. “I have.”
Alice’s blood ran cold at his affirmation.
“Theta. You took everything. Family. Friends. Home. From me. From others—” Jericho’s face and voice were flat, yet his eyes were wide and burning. “—And then you cared for us. You took us in. Then you left. And we did everything for you and to save everyone. Conductors destroyed, and the people using them. The peacekeepers told me you were wrong after, but you were right.” His gaze flitted to the side and then returned to Francis. “You destroyed everything, but not us. Why…?”
Francis’s brows furrowed slightly. He side-glanced at Alice, then nodded subtly. A signal. “I’m sorry, Jericho. I wouldn’t be able to answer that for you.”
While Francis held Jericho’s full attention, Alice slowly crept behind Jericho and flexed her conducting glove.
“You always had all the answers before. I need an answer.” Jericho’s gaze darkened. “No, the answer does not matter. Justice does.” With a grunt, he cracked his whip at Francis—
At that moment, Alice leapt at him and wrapped her conducting-gloved hand around his arm just before the whip’s tip reached the other man. She felt her glove buzz with warmth and then felt Jericho become rigid under her touch.
“Jericho, I’m just using my conductor,” she told him slowly, calmly. “You won’t be able to move, but I’m not hurting you. Let’s calm down together.”
Jericho’s eyes widened as he turned to stare at her. “Talib told me what that person did—what Oran did. What conductors really do.”
Alice felt her heart fall into her stomach. “Jericho—”
“You were wrong. You defended him. And you defend Theta. So you… you are evil—wrong—too.” And then Jericho’s voice cracked, his brows furrowed, and he grimaced. “Y-You make me think the way you think I should think. So I can act the way you want me to act. Without knowing the truth. Like everyone. Right, wrong. You say, then switch. You all take until there is nothing. Nothing is right. I can’t forgive it. There will only be peace when there is nothing else.”
More than anything else, in that exact moment, as Alice stared into Jericho’s searching eyes again, she had the urge to embrace him. But then Scorpio’s grin burned into the edges of her mind, and she refrained. No. She refused to abandon her standards. And so, she instead reached for the suppression cuffs clipped to her waist.
A tendril of white abruptly snapped through the rainfall towards them. Alice’s mind raced, but with a grunt, she shoved Jericho forwards and threw herself back onto the ground just in time to dodge the strike of the Beta’s vitae. Beta herself barely dove out of the way when Jericho returned her attack with a whip of vitae that shot out above Alice’s head towards her. Beta darted for cover down an alleyway, which was when Alice caught sight of Dämon Fortschritt darting into an alley opposite.
After shaking her head and pulling herself up onto her knees, Alice registered Jericho straddled across Francis who was flat on his back two meters away. Somehow during the chaos, Jericho had pierced through Francis’s conducting-gloved hand with a stray shard of glass. His other hand was wrapped around his whip conductor—ready to strike down. Francis’s free hand was touching the pistol at his side but did not move any further.
Alice struggled up to a stand again but her arms and legs wouldn’t obey her. With a cry of frustration, she slipped in the rain and collapsed beneath the weight of her fatigue and exhaustion. She couldn’t reach him—not with her hands nor with her words. The distance was too great.
Off-white lines ran through the sky of the abyss and pulsated as if they were living veins. The crackle of what sounded like radio static interference seeped through the cracks downwards. Upon listening closely to the noise, however, Werner came to realize it was the sound of rain not static. In-between the pitter-patter, he was also able to faintly hear voices, disjointed and echoing:
“Theta. You took everything. Family. Friends. Home. From me. From others. And then you cared for us. You took us in. Then you left. And we did everything for you and to save everyone from conductors. Conductors destroyed, and the people using them too. The peacekeepers told me you were wrong after, but you were right. You destroyed everything but not us. Why?”
It was Jericho’s voice. The biting, venomous anger was clear beneath the facade of calm.
“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be able to answer that for you.”
And Francis’s voice as well.
It wasn’t difficult to deduce from the tone of voices that they were facing each other antagonistically.
“Jericho…” Shion placed a hand to her mouth and clenched her fist. Anger and desperate anguish radiated from her in waves. “How dare Scorpio—”
Werner glanced at Shion with a frown.
If he was able to hear Jericho’s surroundings from down here, he thought, then the situation above must have declined considerably.
“Your body is falling apart,” Lavi confirmed from where she stood beside him. “Whoever is up there is probably expelling your vitae like crazy. It’s all collapsing now.” She grimaced, looking upwards. “Scorpio really is a fool. Always throwing himself into things and losing sight of everything else.”
When Werner looked down at her, he could see the fear in her eyes despite her apparent serenity. He didn’t need to have access to her thoughts to know she was worrying not about him or herself but Olive.
She turned to him, face tight.
“Brief me on how to return temporarily above like before,” Werner said.
“What…?” Lavi startled, eyes widening then narrowing. “I saw what happened to you when you went up there last time. Because you’re a True Conductor and infected, you’re more susceptible to all the other spores in Scorpio’s… network. It’s a different situation from back then. You’re like a balloon, overfilled with air. Any extra pressure might really be the end.” She mimicked a popping sound with her mouth and an explosion with her hands. “If you go up there through yourself instead of through Scorpio, I don’t know what’ll happen. I don’t even know if it’ll work.” She frowned. “You barely look like you’ve recovered from your previous trip up there…”
Yes—Werner agreed: it was a risky measure. But against the obstacle they were facing, it was a necessary measure.
Francis, whom Scorpio was most likely pinning Jericho against, was not only an asset with his knowledge, skills, and clear allegiance to Cadence, but he was also someone important to Cadence. At the moment, he was an individual that they couldn’t afford to lose. Additionally, Jericho was required to counteract Scorpio and excise him from Capricorn. Therefore, Jericho needed to be clear-minded and stable enough to take the appropriate steps against Scorpio. And—
“If I don’t attempt to handle Jericho now, the end result may be the same regardless,” Werner informed her. “If my body dies, the others including Olive will die too. Let’s not waste time. Please tell me the steps.”
At Olive’s name, Lavi frowned. “Even if you go up there,” she muttered, “do you think you’ll be able to stop him? It’s the peacekeeper, right?”
Werner considered this. “I’ve aided him before, although the situation was different. This will just require a different method of approach.”
Lavi paused, seeming to think, before she nodded.
Werner stared past her towards Shion who was looking at him as if he were on that side of the threshold instead of her. “Shion, in this situation, we must look at the long term,” he said. “I understand your concerns, but it’s impossible to go through life without getting hurt. This is the best approach.”
Shion smiled wanly. “I didn’t say anything, Werner.”
She didn’t need to.
“If this gives you any reassurance, I have subordinates who are capable of handling this situation if I’m incapacitated along the way,” Werner said evenly. “Rather, I trust them in handling it. You’ve seen them yourself.” He paused. “Jericho is a special case that would be better handled personally.”
The words felt strange in Werner’s mouth, and he still felt a sense of unease leaving matters in the hands of others if the situation declined to that point but—
“There are people outside of us that you can rely on…?” Shion whispered, hands dropping to her sides. “You’re sure?”
Werner met her gaze, thinking of the trenches, then of his time in the Twin Cities, and then of the faint memories that had trickled down from the other five—memories of his subordinates maneuvering without him. Finally, he nodded.
3 thoughts on “19.2: Doctor, 1130 Distance”
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really liking werner’s development lately
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Alright. about time our true star of this arc finishes his prep time 😄
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