20.1: Swindler & Peacekeeper » Rhyme & Reason

Re-cap:

With the help of Werner’s subordinates and those outside of the six, the six are finally free from Scorpio’s influence. However…


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Ariesian-Geminian Swindler Cadence Morello gagged on the metal pipe lodged in her throat. She tried to lift her hands to remove whatever it was, but her arms felt like noodles—so did her legs. Hell, even her head was pounding and her throat felt like the desert. Not that she’d ever been in a desert before. 

After a moment of struggling, she finally pried the contraption from her mouth and rolled over onto her side with a groan. She glanced back at the device and realized it was one of those feeding tubes she’d seen the doc lugging around for those poor saps who got their jaws punched sideways.

What the…?

She clenched her hand. No conducting rings. Damn. She ran her fingers along the hemming of her inner pants. The extra conducting ring she’d recently decided to store in that area wasn’t there either.

Huh. Storing a conductor there was a brilliant idea, but she had no idea how she’d come up with it. When she tried to remember, her head throbbed ferociously from the back of her neck to her temples. 

With effort, she lifted her head and carefully scanned her surroundings. She was lying on a cotton mattress ringed by metal stands housing IV bags. The room she was in was small, damp-looking, and square—lit only by candles on the floor. A single table stood at the room’s center with a weird-looking board game set up on top of it. There was a familiar brass tune trilling from a record player set to the far-right corner.

Definitely not the doc’s office. 

Damn. How long had she been out, and why was she out? Bad drinking at the bar? No. She didn’t get drunk—she got other peopledrunk. Had she pissed anyone off lately?

Wait.

She scanned the room again. 

There were no doors, no windows, and—

“Awake!” 

Cadence swallowed a yelp as a bright-faced man suddenly leapt into her view. He was tall, muscular, with distinctly sharp-looking Aquarian features. Kind of familiar-looking too.

“Theta—succeeded!” the man continued cheerily. He clapped once, then frowned. “Scorpio…”

“Theta…?”

Francis.

Memories of running through the cold, dark streets of the Twin Cities on that night came to Cadence abruptly. Francis, standing on top of the spire of the Dioscuri Bridge. The pale tangerine glow that had replaced the v-lights of the city. Herself, running through the spider-webbing streets, riding up to Francis on a block of earth controlled by a Capricornian Elementalist who had come from nowhere.

She had nearly died that night, Cadence realized. Saints. What the hell had she been thinking? Francis had been out of his mind. And—

Her head pounded as she thought of that earth Elementalist again. The Elementalist sure was pretty, but where the hell had she come from?

Something wasn’t right. 

The Aquarian abruptly pointed to his face, then held up his index finger. “Pi. Met… once. Remember?”

Cadence searched her memory and then recalled meeting the man for the first time in the remains of the Sognare—

The Sognare? Alma

Cadence’s heart roared in her chest and she struggled to sit up, but fell back weakly. Pi quickly rushed to her aid and helped prop her up against the wall behind the bed.

She stiffened at his touch but still offered him a friendly smile. “Thanks, Pi.”

Pi nodded, eyes bright.

Easy pleaser. 

But, as Cadence tried to recall the last thing she remembered, she didn’t get it. Why the hell had she been working off-beat odd jobs that barely paid a cens these past couple of months? What in saint’s name had she been doing? Staying on the ‘better path’ was the mindset… But in the Twin Cities? What for? 

Cadence thought again as the memories of the past couple of months trickled into her slowly—the Specialist children’s smiles that went from ear-to-ear, late nights hanging out at the TwinStars Pub and shilling out a portion of her earnings to Carl and Allen. But why? For a bunch of kids? For… Francis? But—what about Alma?

Memories of Alma’s faint smile and her parting words— “Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me” —bled into Cadence’s mind.

Alma had left her again, Cadence realized. Wait no. It wasn’t Alma’s fault. It was just the situation—the circumstances. 

A draft of cool air wafted through the room.

“You’re awake. So it worked.”

Cadence looked up and found Francis sweeping into the room from a glowing door on the wall. Hand-in-hand with him was a young girl with a pair of conducting-glasses dangling on her neck. They were both drenched from head-to-toe.

“Success!” Pi exclaimed.

“Francis…” Cadence stared at his tattoo. “I can’t believe it—” 

He closed the distance between them. “Strip.”

The girl at his side blushed. 

Cadence arched a brow. “This ain’t the Casa, Francis…” She gestured around the room. “What’s with the setup? I ain’t a valuable hostage, ya know? What’s with the kid?”

“She was the only one I was able to retrieve…” Francis’s gaze darkened for a moment. He placed a hand over his mouth. “But you’re right. Whether or not the tattoo is present is no longer a telling factor. Things don’t stay the same. Even though Scorpio says otherwise. Still, we should be careful…”

Scorpio? Tattoo? The country? Spore? Francis was talking nonsense again.

He dropped his hand. “Are you able to speak with the other True Conductors?”

“True Conductors?” Cadence tried the familiar word out on her tongue. 

Francis paused. “Do you recall what that is?”

She studied him carefully, cautiously. “Sounds familiar… You mentioned it before…”

“I see… It will take time for you to recall things from your polarization.” Francis reached out for her with an extended hand.

She tensed, but played it off as a wince and rubbed her shoulder. 

Francis sank beside her. “Where is the pain?” Before Cadence could play it off, his eyes widened with realization. “It’s me, Cadence. You can trust me.”

Trust? Well, this was the Twin Cities. Trust didn’t get you that far. Sure, Francis had been her childhood friend, but if circumstances called for it—wait. No, that wasn’t right. She knew that wasn’t right. Besides, Francis had been initiated against his will and had stuck his neck out for her plenty of times. 

“I know that, Francis. I’m just tryin’ ta get my bearin’s is all.”

“I see.” Francis suddenly looked very gloomy. Before Cadence could think of something to say to lessen the gloomy atmosphere, he gestured to the doorway. “I will tell you everything that has transpired so far.”

“So, ya didn’t kidnap me…” Cadence drew slowly.

The atmosphere around Francis became even more gloomy. “Cadence, it’s not like that. I’ll explain.”

Cadence held up a hand. “I’m just pullin’ your leg, Francis. Ya clearly got your head on straight.” A lie.

Francis said something in some odd language to Pi who quickly went to the corner of the room and returned with a pair of wooden crutches.

“Weapons?” Cadence chortled jokingly as she accepted them from Pi. 

Francis remained unsmiling. “I had Pi move your limbs when he was free, but you haven’t moved for weeks. You’re still weak.”

Weeks? Saints. 

“It was a joke.” Cadence sighed. 

***

Cadence followed Francis, Pi, and ‘Lita’ through the gate and found herself in another room that had no windows and no doors. Unlike the previous one, however, this one housed a collection of bookshelves that were stuffed full. Tiny children were running around the stacks of books, while older ones whispered to each other alongside the walls. Allen and Carl—of all people—sat along the back wall on a sofa. A distinctly Capricornian boy sat on Carl’s lap.

“Theta!” the younger children squealed as they crowded around him.

Francis bent down and picked up the smallest one arm—which was weird to see.

The children then looked at Lita.

“It’s… you,” one said. “We worried about you… We thought the Campanas got you!”

“I-It’s not ‘you,’” Lita stammered, staring ahead at nothing with flushing cheeks. “It’s Lita.” She lifted her head. “Is everyone here…?” Before she could ask anything else, she was pulled away by half the children. 

The other half crowded around Cadence and started speaking over one another:

“Are you okay, Cadence…?” 

“Is your face okay? You fell…”

“Did you have a good nap—”

“The hell you been, Francis? Just droppin’ this brat off and leavin’ right after,” Carl grumbled, jerking his head towards the boy on his lap. “Kid doesn’t speak a lick of Common.”

“Carl? Allen?” Cadence stared, perplexed. 

The two men looked over at her, finally noticing her presence.

“Cadence!” Tucking the kid under one arm, Carl stormed over to her. “Welcome back to the world of the damned living.” He then wrapped her in his free arm and gave her a shake.

Cadence wondered if being cooped up in this place had made Carl lose his marbles too. Still, she returned the gesture by giving him a pat on the back. He slapped her harder, causing her to cough and nearly fly forward out of her crutches.

Francis quickly caught her and sent Carl a frown. “You alright, Cadence?”

Francis’s concern was strange. All of their concerns were strange. The damn kid who was now clinging to her leg was strange.

“It’s all a little overwhelmin’ is all. I’m clearly missin’ somethin’ here. Feels like a bad morrowheat trip.” 

Francis nodded and then explained some backwards story about a Capricornian lieutenant named Werner Waltz, a pirate who had previously worked for him, the prince of Aries, and a peacekeeper named Jericho. Connections, polarizations, the Anime-Vitae Hypothesis, etcetera. And some all-powerful Manipulator saint candidate who possessed a peacekeeper and was exacerbating political unrest in Capricorn.

“The hell, Cadence?” Carl made a face. “You didn’t tell us you had a prince in your lot—a peacekeeper too. Could’ve squeezed them for money.”

“I didn’t know myself…” Cadence scratched the top of her head.

“That why you hate conductors so much?” Allen asked, jerking his head at Francis. 

Francis glanced at him. “Yes, that’s one reason. They’re unnatural… even though they make a hefty cens…”

“Kinda like recyclin’ though if you think about it,” Carl noted.

Francis sent Carl a glare.

“What?” Carl shrugged. “It does.”

Cadence hobbled over to the game board table and sank into the chair there. “This ain’t some prank, is it?”

“You don’t remember,” Allen said more than asked.

“I mean I remember everythin’ that happened here.” She side-glanced at Francis. “The whole… mystic vitae stuff… sounds like a bad morrowheat trip.”

“I’d like to tell you more, but I only learned you were a True Conductor recently,” Francis replied, sitting down at the table across from her and resting the child on his lab. “This is actually our first time talking since then, isn’t it?

“Yeah, ya went on that retreat of yours,” Cadence offered casually despite her nerves. “How was it by the way?”

“Think your time in Capricorn did a lot more for you than that retreat did.” Carl grinned, slapping Francis on the back too. “Seem more like yourself now.”

“Well, I did see Nico while I was there,” Francis noted before his face visibly folded. “I wasn’t able to transport him away in time…” He glanced at Lita who was being shown the little nooks and crannies of the room by the other children and then frowned. “He’s in the hold of the Capricornian military.”

“It’s always one of you.” Allen shook his head.

Nico…?

Cadence’s temple pulsated and her stomach twisted in knots. “Saints… Nico’s always gettin’ himself in himself into ta bad stitches.” She startled. “They’re not goin’ ta… execute him or anythin’ are they?”

Francis stared at her for a moment, lips pursing together. Not very reassuring.

“I need to return,” he finally said, setting the child down and picking up a game piece from the board. “I have my doubts about Libra’s and Leona’s intentions. Nico is still there too. Scorpio… his towers need to be dealt with—” 

“The hell—that’s crazy, Francis!” Carl snapped. He pointed to a radio sitting on a stack of books at the corner of the room. “You know what they’ve been sayin’ about Capricorn? They say it’s basically on the brink of a damn civil war!”

“I was a leader of ELPIS before I was your brother,” Francis returned. “I made a pact. I need to take responsibility—”

“Responsibility?” Carl snapped before gesturing to Cadence. “Come on, Cadence, talk some sense into him.”

“Francis, it ain’t your country,” Cadence agreed without skipping a beat. “You’re still confused. Maybe more than I am.” She gestured to Carl and Allen, then the children. “You’re with family. Ya’ve got kids who’re always askin’ for ya here. Are ya really gonna go off and abandon ‘em? Again?”

Francis studied her for a moment before reaching across the table and dropping a handful of familiar conducting rings into her hands. “If you expel your vitae slowly, your memory of the connection may return faster due to increased vitae flow. This is, of course, a hypothesis.”

Cadence arched a brow and slid them on. Comfy. “Er… Thanks, Francis.”

“Oh, tricks!” some of the children running around her exclaimed as they surrounded her. “Show us, please, Cadence?”

Right… 

Cadence recalled transmuting illusions for them many times before. Entertaining a bunch of children. Not charging a dime. Not like she hadn’t done something like this before Francis went nuts in the city, but it was always for her own entertainment and not the entertainment of others.

Brushing the oddity aside, Cadence began to transmute the illusion of whatever the children wanted over her as Francis conversed with Allen and Carl. Each illusion she made seemed to get the children continuously more excited. A clown, a mermaid, a witch, and so on. After the tenth transmutation—where she took on the appearance of one of the boys in the group—she waved her hand in the air and threw herself back into her chair.

“Cadence is tired now,” she sighed, waving her hand at them. “Let Cadence rest—”

“Your cheeks are all rosy,” said boy cooed suddenly as he reached over and pressed his palms against her cheeks.

“Thanks. I got a skincare routine.” She winked. Man, she thought contrarily. Kids were really weird nowadays, weren’t they—

Cadence felt her heart skip a beat, and her hand went to her cheek where the boy’s hand once was—where she could feel another cold ghostly hand. 

When she looked up, she found not the kid, but a familiar pale man with platinum-blonde hair. Her heart hammered in her chest as she stared into his ice-blue eyes before realizing that the man’s gloved hand was pressed against her cheek. She could feel tight rope pressing against her arms and a cold chair pressing against her back.

“It’s time, Cadence,” he said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”

Cadence remembered this. She had been pulled aside by Donato and Feliciano, tied to a chair in a freezer, and beaten within an inch of her life. But, she hadn’t been the one that had taken the hits. Not really—

Suddenly, the man and the room disappeared. Cadence found herself standing at the center of the Sognare which looked just like it had before ELPIS raided the city. Her favorite ivory piano was at her side, and a beautiful woman with dark skin and dark eyes that crinkled with amusement stood in front of her. The scenery rippled like a puddle of water, and suddenly Cadence felt her cheek stinging again. The woman was now frowning at her with disappointment in her eyes, while the walls of a cold cavern rose around them.

“You won’t get anything from me, Cadence,” the woman said. “Not forgiveness nor reassurance nor a perpetrator. The only person you can get things like that about in this situation is from Werner.”

Before Cadence could respond, the woman morphed into a tanned adolescent who put his hands over hers. 

“Claire said something…” the boy muttered. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He placed his hands over her own and closed his eyes.

Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.

And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.

She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms and consumed her vision.

When the flames faded, a tall, tanned woman basking in sunlight sauntering down from somewhere stood in front of her. Smile blazing, the woman lifted the blade in her hand and pointed it at Cadence’s throat—

“You are weak, no?”

Cadence winced as a ray of sunlight reflected off from the woman’s blade. When her eyes recovered, she found that a tall peacekeeper wearing glasses was now standing before her with a suitcase in his hand. Around them unfolded a chaotic warehouse filled with men and women in monochrome suits chasing after children and other men and women draped in white cloaks.

Cadence looked the tall peacekeeper up and down incredulously before hesitantly reaching forward with her hand. She pressed hers against his.

Electricity surged through her entire body at the contact—

—yelping, Cadence toppled out of her chair and hit the ground with a thud. Francis was at her side immediately. She was in pain, but everything was clear. How the hell could she forget all that?

“Saints…” Cadence threaded her fingers through her hair as he helped her to a stand. “Francis…” She searched his face. “Ya said ya helped Jericho, the kid, Werner, and Maria?”

“My main intention was to remove Scorpio from you and Scorpio from Capricorn,” Francis replied. “My actions were merely a result of that. At least, that’s what I’d like to think. That poor prince was just a child…” He paused, eyebrows rising slightly. “Wait. You remember…? That was rather fast.” He placed a hand to his chin. “Perhaps me telling you paired with you expelling your vitae—”

Cadence wrapped her arms around him, cutting him off short. “Saints. Ya pull a disappearin’ act and then come sweepin’ in for a rescue. I owe ya, Francis, big time.”

“You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” Francis returned the gesture with little embarrassment and hesitation before releasing her and helping her back onto her feet. 

She fell back into her chair and rubbed her eyes. Memories of her override of Werner, the escape from Argo, and her fight with Nico slapped her across the face. She grimaced, shame burning in her chest. “Aw, hell…” Before she could answer the confused looks Carl and Allen gave her, the memory of her nightmare—of that haunting tune, of Alma, Atienna, and Werner being consumed by scorpions—grabbed hold of her. “That was Scorpio? That Manipulator?”

Francis’s eyes narrowed. “So you remember him too. I see.”

“… Talib? Really?” Cadence frowned, hiding her shiver by fixing her shirt. “Damn… Jericho’ll be really upset.” She was too. Talib had been funny. Stupid funny. Goofy. Like Izsak. “I still need a minute, if ya don’t mind.” Cadence struggled to her feet and stared at the record player trilling out saxophone in the room’s corner—it was the one she’d gifted Francis.

Saints, so they’d been found out, she thought. Everyone and their aunt knew they were True Conductors now. Werner was in the middle of it all and Nico too——

Her eyes widened as realization struck. “An entire city is one thing.” She hobbled back and forth in the room on her crutches, one of the younger children and Pi tailing worriedly behind her. “An entire country? Why can’t we get a break? Why can’t shit hit the fan for one of us at a time—ya know, so we can have time ta process it. The doc—the other doc from Ophiuchus—says ya gotta have time ta process things—” She skidded to a halt. “The others.” She whipped around and stared at Francis. “I know Jericho’s probably in the Medical Department in Ophiuchus, but who knows what happened ta the others with us passin’ out left and right.” She held her head. “I can’t even hear or feel any of ‘em—”

Francis nodded. “Scorpio’s intrusion disrupted your connection. The others are in the same semi-amnesiac fugue condition as you were, but your channels will slowly readjust… I expect that Scorpio has increased his offshoots and spores around the ones you’re connected to. ”

“Did… he do the same things to them that he did to me?” Cadence asked, tense.

Francis’s lips pressed into a firm line. “I saw it firsthand.”

Cadence felt faint and nauseous. She hadn’t felt this unsafe and unbalanced since before her connection with the others began. But if the others didn’t even remember all of this, then they were ripe picking—

“Saints, Cadence, what’s with the dramatics?” Carl arched a brow. “You’re out of whatever it is now. Relax.”

“Hey, ya didn’t have some creep diggin’ inside of ya. I feel like I’ve been violated—” Pausing in her rant, Cadence took a look around and realized she was receiving wide-eyed stares from the children. She shrugged her shoulders. “Right, ‘course. Ya know me. Can’t help with the dramatics sometimes. Ya always talk sense, Carl.” She tapped her chest. “The reason in the room.”

“Yeah, I am.” Carl nodded, rubbing his nose.

The children settled back down and began to amble around again.

“I… I got an idea,” Cadence drew slowly, “but it’s a pretty stupid idea. Not much of an idea but just gatherin’ ‘resources’ together really.” Felt like a death wish just bringing it up.

The vicious words that she’d spat at Nico abruptly came back to the surface of her mind. Damnit. Nico always got into bad situations. And she always rescued him from it. That was their dynamic. She liked it. Made her feel like he was relying on her. A necessary part of his life and all that. There was a comfort in the idea that she would be the first one he’d always run to. Probably not the best friendship, but the best the Twin Cities had to offer. Right? 

Bah. Focus

“Jericho’s vitae is crucial to Scorpio’s removal,” Francis said. “I would like to ask for his help or at least for his vitae, so if you’re suggesting is what I think you’re suggesting—”

Cadence arched a brow. “No offense, Francis, but even with me, I think the detective would punch ya sideways. I get you’re not that same Theta, but the detective can be hard-headed sometimes.”

“Jericho and I had something akin to a reconciliation when I met him in Capricorn… although putting it that way is too optimistic,” Francis replied. “Of course, I doubt he would welcome me now since he is in the same state as you were. However, if you were present with me, then maybe you’ll be better able to open his channels and he’d regain his connection with you quicker.”

“You’ll be with me?” Cadence arched a brow, feeling the tightness in her chest lessening slightly.

“You’re planning on going?” Francis returned, surprised.

“You’ve both lost it…” Carl grumbled, settling back down beside Allen with the child still tucked under his arm. “You, Nic, Cadence. Dumb, crazy bastards.”

Cadence interjected, “Hey. Cost-benefit analysis. If they die, I die. If I die, then you’re down your best money maker for the kids. If I die, then Nic—the only doc in this country who’ll do work for you for free—might kick the bucket too. Ya know Francis is gonna go regardless, so—”

“You’re adults,” Allen interjected, lighting himself a v-cig. “Don’t need our approval.”

True, Cadence thought, but she’d still like it—though she’d never admit it.

Allen jerked his head at Francis. “We’re brothers, Francis, but we’re also business partners. You can’t go disappearing without notice as you choose and please. You gotta take care of our assets too.” He took a puff. “If you and Cadence are gonna go, you need to come back. You’ve got that slick conducting ability. There’s no excuse for not returning. I get you said you need to work things out, but don’t turn that into an excuse. You talk a lot about responsibility, but I don’t see you taking it on things that’re close to home.”

Allen was pissed—Cadence could tell.

Francis reached for an object at his side and showed it to them. It was a pistol and not just any pistol. It was Allen’s favorite pistol. “This came in handy, Al. Thanks.” He studied the children around the room before he holstered his weapon and nodded. “Okay, it’s a deal.”

Allen flicked ash off his bud. “You too, Cadence.”

Cadence snapped her fingers, creating an illusion of a hat at the top of her head which she then proceeded to tip at him.


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Jericho sipped from the glass of apple juice Wtorek Elizabeta had provided for him before handing it back to her. 

Accepting the drink, she shined a handheld v-light in his eyes. “What’s the last thing you can remember?”

“Reading letters in Gabrielle’s office.” Jericho thought. “From Leize from Cancer. With Ferris, Gabrielle, Alice and you. Talib too.” His chest suddenly felt heavy, and he rubbed the area uncomfortably.

Jericho was not fond of the Medical Department. The walls of all of its offices were whiter than the walls of all the other departments in the Serpens Establishment, and it always had a lemon scent in the air that caused him discomfort. 

But Elizabeta’s office was slightly better than the other offices here. It smelled more like flowers than lemons; and instead of having certificates and charts hanging on her walls, she had monochrome photographs of her family and drawings made in crayon and graphite. Her desk also contained similar photographs captured in stand-up frames. He couldn’t see the exact details of them because he was not wearing his glasses, but he liked them.

At the moment, Jericho was sitting on a small bed draped in thin, white sheets at the corner of the room. His IVs had been removed earlier and stowed away by Elizabeta’s assistant. Wtorek Csilla sat at the far corner on a wooden chair reading a book. In the opposite corner sat his suitcase, waiting patiently for him. 

He turned to stare at the notebook in his hands. His journal. He had flipped through it earlier and had found odd sketches he’d drawn over the past few months. He didn’t understand them: chicken-scratch of a stick figure shooting out fire from its mouth and shaded sketches of a distinctly Virgoan-looking woman peering over a book. Theory: Alice asked him to draw these things, and he had just forgotten about it.

Jericho looked back up at Csilla and found her staring at him, so he waved. She returned the gesture. He thought he saw her smile, but he wasn’t sure. 

“I’m in the ELPIS Department,” he realized suddenly. “I can bring ELPIS to justice. Finally.”

There was no time to rest now.

Elizabeta tensed then switched off the handheld v-light before handing him his glasses from her lab coat pocket. Csilla stared at him, stiffened, then continued reading.

Jericho rose from the bed as he put on his glasses. “I am functional—”

She pushed him gently back down onto the bed. “You’ve been unconscious for weeks. We don’t know why. I’d like to keep you under observation for 48 more hours…” She looked him up and down. “We helped to exercise your limbs, but I was expecting you to still be weak… You’re resilient, Jericho. However, you’re not invincible—”

The doors to the room slid open suddenly, and two women stepped in. Jericho recognized them from the bi-weekly meetings the ELPIS Department held. Two non-chair-holding members of the department. 

“Excuse me—do you have an appointment?” Elizabeta cleared her throat, stopping the two with her body before they could come in any further.

“We’re here to speak with Agent Jericho,” replied one. “About a case. We need him immediately.”

Jericho tilted his head. “I am… assigned a case?” Already? That was good. He was closer.

The woman who spoke brushed past Elizabeta, approached him, and extended a hand out to him. “Remember me?”

Jericho tilted his head and accepted the gesture because it was customary. Immediately, a surge of electricity went up his arm. It was a familiar jolt that drew his mind spinning back to the past: meeting Cadence in the small warehouse in the Twin Cities; sitting in his apartment with Atienna as she posed for his sketches; listening wholeheartedly to Maria’s tales on her rocking ship; watching over Olivier as he tinkered away on another conductor; and Werner, grasping his shoulder tightly in Die Hauptstadt as rain poured around them. Everything. 

The static shock was quickly followed by a sense of overwhelming relief—relief that was not exactly just his own.

“Cadence,” Jericho realized, tightening his hand around hers. “You are Cadence Morello.”

Ya remember me! Cadence’s eyes glimmered familiarly beneath her disguise. Her voice and thoughts were a comfort. Francis was right about the ‘close proximity’ thing, after all! I was thinkin’ I’d have ta prepare a whole dramatic speech and everythin’ for ya. Actually had one written up in my head if ya ever want to hear it—

Yes, I would.

It was a joke, detective—

Talib flashed through Jericho’s mind at the word.

Concern and a hint of sadness bled through from Cadence’s end.

Heard about your partner. It’s a shame.

How did you get here?

He felt Cadence wink. Ophiuchus needed better security then. 

Hey, now. Don’t go suggestin’ any ‘helpful’ ideas—

“Cadence?” Elizabeta inquired with a frown, studying the illusory nametag on Cadence’s chest that read Edna Park. 

Jericho quickly replied, “My mistake. This is not Cadence. This is Edna Park. She does work in the ELPIS Department. I know her. We have business together.”

Tryin’ a little too hard, detective.

“How do you have business together when you just woke up?” Elizabeta frowned.

Let me take care of this.

“We were introducing a case to him just before his incident,” Cadence said. “News travels fast. And, given our department’s strained resources at the moment, we need all hands on deck.”

“Well, he’s not allowed to leave for cases without approval from the Medical Department,” Elizabeta replied. “I’d like to keep him under observation for—”

“Wait… you’re Izsak’s wife, aren’t you?” Cadence interjected. “I’m so sorry for what happened…”

Csilla looked up, while Elizabeta paled. Jericho stared at the former. Saint candidates, he realized. Alice said…

Don’t stare, detective!

Jericho looked away from Csilla and stared at the other woman who had come with Cadence. She too was staring at Csilla. Francis,Jericho realized a second after.

Good intuition. 

“The case is actually about Mr. Wtorek.” Cadence covered her mouth. “Oh, I shouldn’t say… but we’ve been looking at other factors that might’ve brought him into ELPIS. We might be able to help him, but—”

“Other factors…?” Elizabeta whispered. “You can help him?”

Cadence nodded. “When we find him.” She indicated Jericho. “He’s been a big help. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I… understand,” Elizabeta said quietly after a moment, squeezing her arm. She frowned, eyes hardening. “Do you really think my integrity is that low?”

Jericho glanced at Cadence.

“But if you’re this adamant about working on the case, Jericho, then I’ll sign off on the papers…” Elizabeta amended, brows furrowing slightly. “But only for office work. Fieldwork will still need to be approved.”

***

After picking up his suitcase from the corner of the room and checking its contents, Jericho led Cadence and Francis out of Elizabeta’s office and down the hall. 

Saints. It’s good ta see ya!, came Cadence’s voice which was filled with excitement despite her flat expression. I was stressin’ ‘cause I have no idea where anyone else is and I was just guessin’ about you. If ya weren’t here, then…

Their footfalls echoed in the quiet hall of the department. 

He noticed that she was walking with a slight limp. She was weak, he realized.

Anyway, I was thinkin’ of doin’ a rendezvous with the others, ya know? Since everythin’ is hittin’ the fan, and we’re kinda screwed? Might as well have a reunion, right? Well, more like a ‘union,’ since we haven’t really met in person before. 

Jericho nodded. We can defeat Scorpio together. Fix Talib. Help the others.

Cadence smiled slightly, although her eyes were tired. Sure thing, detective. Aren’t you a good guy? Makin’ me feel like I need to step up. Anyway, pretty sure the lieutenant and sunshine are in the capital of Capricorn right now, but we gotta be strategic before we go in guns blazin’, right? Ya wouldn’t happen ta be able ta use those investigatin’ skills ta find out where Atienna and the kid are right now, would you?

Train, Jericho recalled. Alice told me. She said the Capricornians found Olivier’s and Atienna’s on a medical train. Medical Train 467.

Nice, detective! Thing is we don’t know where that train ended up—

“The Assignment Department has routinely updated information about train routes running through Signum,” Jericho said aloud which earned a couple of stares from passing agents and a side glance from Francis.

Cadence presented all this information to Francis in Geminian. Jericho then began to lead them through the stretching halls to the department. Francis looked tense, scanning the white walls and glass walls with a deepening frown. Cadence was clearly concerned, continually sending him looks.

Don’t think he likes this place much.

It felt strange having Cadence this close to him, Jericho thought. He had only come this close to her once or twice before. He felt somewhat ‘self-conscious’ as Olivier would call it. Especially since…

Jericho tightened his grip on the handle of his suitcase.

I broke a promise. With Alice. I—

Memories of Capricornians crumbling into nothing beneath a glowing white sun and above burning white sand at the hand of his burning white vitae came at him in bright, hot flashes.

—I used my conductor on people who weren’t in ELPIS. They are gone. I was tricked. Again.

Cadence remained silent for a moment. 

Jericho waited.

“Eh, we all break promises and we all make mistakes. We shouldn’t, but we do,” she finally said aloud, causing Francis to glance at her as they rounded a corner. “But if ya know that ya did wrong and ya try to improve it, then that’s different. Beatin’ yourself up over it doesn’t do anythin’. No rhyme or reason to it. Gotta pay dues and move on. ‘Course, I’m not makin’ excuses. I promise.”

Nico Fabrizzio flashed through Jericho’s mind causing him to realize—“You fought with Nico.”

Francis turned to them slightly.

“I can help,” Jericho offered. “If you would like.”

Cadence smiled wanly. Thanks, detective.

After climbing several floors and walking through another long-stretching narrow hall, they finally reached the Assignment Department. It was as busy as Jericho remembered it with endless rows of cubicles stretching out as far as he could see. Smoke from v-cigs and cigarettes clouded the tiled high-ceiling, while the air was filled with the ringing of phones, the flutter of paper, and the pat-pat of typewriter keys. 

He began to lead them forward again when—

“J-Jericho?!”

Jericho turned and found Ferris Hart standing just a step away in-between two cubicles and balancing several stacks of files haphazardly in her arms.

“Ferris,” Jericho greeted her, catching a file that fell from the top and returning it to its place. “Hello.”

She’s cuter in a person, Cadence noted, studying the woman’s hair which was now dyed green. There’s dolls, and then there’s dolls.

“Y-you’re awake!” Ferris squeaked, eyes brightening as she set her stacks of files aside and came up to him. “I heard from Elizabeta, but… It’s good to see you! It’s been so quiet in Gabrielle’s office since everyone’s…” 

“I need assistance,” Jericho said. “About train routes.”

“Oh—I’d be happy to help!” Ferris brightened immediately but then studied him. “Are you sure you should be up…?”

“Elizabeta gave me approval.”

Ferris accepted this explanation with a hesitant nod before leading them to the back of the office and into a room behind a large black door. The room inside was large and spacious and filled with just as many desks as the previous room had been. There were many more telephones in this room than the previous, however, with the lines and wires flooding the floor haphazardly. 

At the very back of the room hung a large billboard that was filled up with rectangular white tabs printed with a slew of words and numbers. ‘Sagittarian Commercial Train 405, Departure: 3:45 pm, Arrival: Est., Location: Thousand Name City, Cases: 0,’ read one line of tabs.Every so often the tabs indicating time would be flipped to different ones by a passing agent.

“So what train are you looking into?” Ferris asked once she brought them within half a meter of the billboard.

“Capricornian Medical Transport 467,” Jericho replied.

Ferris tensed, before lowering her hand. “That’s… That’s one of the fifty locomotives that’ve been disrupted in Capricorn because of the protests that are happening there….” 

Perfect…

Ferris put her hand to her lips. “I heard one had a Capricornian general, a Virgoan diplomat, and the prince of Aries stuck on board waiting for escort…” She glanced at him. “You probably haven’t heard the news, but this new political movement is—”

“The Augen,” Jericho finished.

“So you’ve read the reports…” Ferris’s face fell. “I heard that the Kaiser’s sent out medical Conductors and officers to help the medical trains that’ve been stuck. But he’s… refusing our help, of course.”

‘Politics.’

“They’re still deciding on a ruling on if Ophiuchus should get involved,” Ferris said, folding her hands in front of her. “People are saying that we should intervene because there are politicians from all over Signum in Capricorn for the convention and they’re getting caught up in all of this. The other half are saying that intervening would be going against Capricorn’s autonomy… ‘Bad precedent,’ they say…”

Talib’s—Scorpio’s—words rang through Jericho’s mind then: Ophiuchus was not right.

Everyone’s a little wrong, Cadence interjected, glancing at him. Not blamin’ it on circumstances but it changes with circumstances. Perspectives, I mean. It’s not all ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘black’ and ‘white,’ detective. She sighed internally. Don’t know what I’m sayin’. Atienna is better at this stuff than me.

Jericho nodded.

Cadence squinted up and scanned the board. “I’m not too familiar with this board. I usually receive all the information in a neat file from your department… You know your department is so efficient that it makes us all practically useless sometimes.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, you know we’re all needed to make Ophiuchus work…”

Cadence returned the chuckle in kind. “Well, would you mind showing me where exactly that train ended up…?”

“No problem.” Ferris nodded at a corner of the board. “Medical Train 467 is currently in Eisburg.”

That’s Werner’s hometown… 

“Wait—” Ferris turned. “You’re not actually headed there are you? I know the ELPIS Department is in Die Hauptstadt right now because they think ELPIS is involved in some of the riots there, but—”

“Top secret,” Jericho said. He thought again. “But Gabrielle might disclose it after all of this.”

“Gabrielle…?” Ferris let out a quiet sigh. “I hope Talib, Alice, Roberto, and her are okay over there, you know?” She stared at the billboard. “I was speaking with my grandmother the other day, and she says everything that’s been happening this past year is reminding her of all the tension before the Reservoir War started… I don’t mean to be a pessimist but…”

Jericho stared at her until Cadence suggested something ‘comforting’ for him to say. And so he placed a hand on Ferris’s shoulder and offered her a thumbs up. “We are peacekeepers. We fight war.”

***

Eisburg, Capricorn

Francis’s gate transported them to a rooftop that oversaw a field of golden wheatgrass. As soon as Cadence stepped out of the gate, she slipped on a roof tile and stumbled forward. Jericho quickly grabbed her by the scruff and pulled her back onto the roof. She peered down at the steep drop before craning her neck and sending him a grateful look.

Francis pointed into the darkness past the field. “There’s the train. From the information Miss Hart gave us, I’m assuming that the prince and the advisor are inside.”

Jericho followed his gaze and found the indicated train sitting in the darkness in front of a thick of trees. It was surrounded by a crowd of men and women holding picket signs and waving blue-painted black flags. Even from this distance, Jericho could hear their shouting over and over again:

“No peace in Signum without peace in Capricorn!”

Every so often the crowd would be ushered back by men and women in either Capricornian military uniforms or Ariesian royal guard garments. 

Jericho squinted past them and at the train in an attempt to see inside, but—

They covered up the windows. Paint? Really? Damn.

We break the windows—

Let’s not, detective.

Jericho agreed and then inspected the front and back of the train. The tracks at the front were melted into the ground, while the tracks behind it had been sheared apart by jutting rock. Locked in. He turned back to Cadence and noticed her crutches. His stomach twisted.

“I can carry you,” Jericho suggested after a moment. “Or you can stay behind and I go. With your conductors. You can override me—”

“I suggest you hold off on polarization activities,” Francis interjected. “Your channels were strained by Scorpio’s invasion, and they’re slowly healing. If you attempt to use each other’s vitae or perform an override without making sure all of your connected channels are open… Put it simply: just by the theoretics, it’d be messy.”

Swallowing and shrugging, Cadence flashed a practiced smile and wiggled her ringed fingers. “Don’t get yourself in a knot, detective. Don’t ya like my company?”

Jericho nodded seriously. 

Cadence stared then chortled, snapping her fingers. “Well, we’re gonna just slip in and out just like that.” 

Jericho considered this. 

“It’s kinda inelegant, but I got an idea.”

***

Instead of maneuvering through the crowd of protesters and into the train, they made their way to a tall nearby house that oversaw it. Francis then handed Jericho a vial of his blood to throw at the train’s roof. It took several attempts since Jericho’s own aim was not as good as Werner’s, but eventually he got a vial to shatter right on top of the train’s third compartment. 

Francis then transported them to the location and quietly agreed to wait hidden on the rooftop for them. He painted the inside of Cadence’s and Jericho’s suit jackets with his blood as an escape option.

“A trick I picked up from a Capricornian veteran when we were freeing that lieutenant from Scorpio’s spore,” Francis explained. “I dislike deceptive things, but I guess that changes with convenience. Can’t believe I’ve never thought of using it like this—oh, I’ll pay for dry-cleaning, of course.”

“Slick,” Cadence complimented him before transmuting herself with the disguise of an Ariesian guard. She extended her hand out to Jericho and transmuted the same over him. 

After handing Francis one of the many pairs of suppression cuffs he’d brought along with him, Jericho casually slipped into one of the compartments with Cadence beside him. They were hand-in-hand to prolong the transmutation so she wouldn’t have to continuously reconfigure it when it broke down.

The first compartment they entered was filled to the brim with the elderly and sickly. Around those people were Capricornian medical Conductors with dark circles beneath their eyes. 

Jericho stared at them, but Cadence pulled him forward and into another compartment. 

This is kinda cool, ain’t it?

‘Cool?’ Jericho glanced down at her as they continued forward.

Ya know. Us workin’ together physically. You gettin’ along with Francis. Think we deserve a breather once in a while… Just gotta ignore the whole revolution thing, us bein’ exposed, Werner and Maria bein’ locked in that wonderful city—

Jericho would describe it more as ‘warm’ than cool.

Aw, detective. Cadence cracked a grin. When did ya become so swee—

Jericho tensed as they entered the next compartment which was emptier than the others behind them. It contained only four men and three women in Capricornian military uniforms seated at the tables alongside the walls and windows. They all wore the signature bands marked with red crosses on their arms. 

One female officer stood up and held up a hand. “We’re not allowing entry past this point.”

“We’re royal guards serving under the Ariesian crown,” Cadence replied in a steely tone. 

“I understand that,” the medical officer said, “but we’ve received strict orders not to allow anyone past this point.”

“This is ridiculous.” Cadence bristled dramatically. “You’re barring us from our duty!”

Eh. It’s fine. We’ll just go up and around—

“Wait…” The officer abruptly reached forward for Cadence—

—and Jericho promptly stepped forward, cracked the officer against the jaw, and sent her flying into the male officer behind her who caught her awkwardly.

“Reflex,” Jericho replied, shaking his hand. “Sorry.” He then noticed something dark and blue peeking out from beneath the collar of the officer’s shirt. “They’re infected.”

Without hesitation, Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase and uppercut the startled male officer who was still holding the groaning female officer with the edge of it. The man hit the roof with a gasp before falling to the ground unconscious.

Saints! Haven’t ya heard of bein’ discrete, Jericho—

The officers reached for their waists and pulled pistols from their holsters. Cadence snapped her fingers again in alarm, transmuting a distorted illusion of invisibility over them.

Don’t want ta get shot at, do we—

Jericho picked Cadence up, tucked her under his arm, and brandished his suitcase as the medical officers looked around the compartment in tense confusion. He swung his suitcase sideways at the officer closest to him and knocked him unconscious against the edge of the table there. The other officers began backing away and firing blind shots, so Jericho hopped onto the closest table and then launched himself onto an officer beneath him. He pulled the officer into an arm lock with his free arm, releasing her once she stopped moving. Another officer coming up from behind Jericho was quickly knocked unconscious by a swing to the temple by Cadence’s crutches.

This feels damn ridiculous…

Jericho made quick work of two other officers who pointed their pistols blindly around the room. A crack against the head there, a slam against the wall here. He then set his eyes on the remaining officer who was slowly backing away towards the door. Before he could strike the officer down, however, the window closest to him shattered and something round flew in from it and cracked the officer at the side of the head. The man hit the ground unmoving.

Jericho turned to the window in confusion and saw a dark figure crawling in. A familiar woman. “You are…” 

“Corporal Emilia Bergman, 212th Division of the Border Force.” The woman saluted as soon as she was inside. She searched the compartment for them and said in a hesitant voice: “Cadence and Jericho, right…? You’re here…?”

She’s okay, came Cadence’s relief. She then tensed. What if she’s—

“I’m not infected,” Emilia said.

And how does she know what infected is and that we’re here? Pretty sure that whole arc happened after me and Emilia both kicked the bucket.

Jericho agreed.

“You can test the cuffs on me first if you’d like, and I’ll explain after,” Emilia suggested before nodding down to the groaning medical officers, “but… I think maybe you should take care of these ones first.”

After Jericho slapped suppression cuffs over the wrists of the medical officers, he proceeded to test them on Emilia. Once the cuffs were on her, she didn’t even flinch when he poked and prodded her sides, so he decided she was not infected and removed the cuffs. 

Cadence transmuted the Ariesian guard disguises over herself and him as Emilia collected her bearings.

“…I recovered a couple of days ago,” Emilia explained, rubbing her wrists. “I heard everything that was happening with the Augen from the radio… And all the medical officers were acting strange so I slipped out and started performing reconnaissance locally when the train was stopped here.” She rose to a stand and dusted herself off. “I was doing reconnaissance when I came across that ELPIS leader—Francis Foxman—on the roof just now. We… had a misunderstanding but he explained everything that’s been happening—”

Footsteps resounded suddenly from behind the left-hand door.

Jericho tensed, bringing up his suitcase.

Throwing out a halting hand, Cadence quickly snapped her fingers and pressed her palm against the floor. Her vitae spread over the entire compartment of the train, concealing the glass and bodies on the floor from sight. When the door opened, an Ariesian guard dressed in red drapes poked his head out. The man scanned the room with an arched brow before shrugging and pulling back behind the door.

Cadence pulled back with a sigh and wiped her brow.

“With all due respect—” Emilia began suddenly.

“No need for all the formality,” Cadence assured her.

“Please let me come with you on this. I’m an earth Elementalist. I can help you,” Emilia urged. “This is my country. That’s my unit. That’s my superior. I don’t want any of this to reach my family—”

“I’m not one for tactics, but I think increasin’ our numbers is a good thing. You’re a sweetheart, Emilia,” Cadence replied, extending a hand. “‘Course if ya wanna join the group, we gotta get a transmutation on ya. And if we wanna keep the transmutation goin’, we gotta hold hands. Hope ya don’t mind.”

Emilia looked Cadence up and down before accepting her gesture.

“Welcome, on board.” Cadence winked.

Flirting, Jericho decided.

***

With all of them now in disguises and no medical officers popping up along the rest of their route, the rest of the journey through the train was uneventful. 

It became apparent when they were nearing the compartment where Olivier and Atienna were housed because the number of Ariesian guards present steadily increased. Jericho recognized several of them, including one Alexander Charming who sat at a booth with crossed arms and a displeased look on his face.

Eventually, they reached a window-less corridor that housed private rooms alongside the left-hand wall. Five guards were stationed in front of it. Cadence proceeded to talk them out of their posts by directing them to the compartment where they’d encountered the medical officers earlier.

Probably creatin’ some Ariesian-Capricornian tension, but I’m sure the politicians’ll work it out.

Jericho wasn’t as sure.

After fumbling with the keys for half a second, Cadence unlocked the private room door and they filtered inside. The room inside was small but well-furnished with a bed, small desk, and coffee table. Laying on that bed curled up with his back to them was a familiar figure. Olivier. 

Jericho paced over to the bedside, dragging Emilia and Cadence with him. 

“You must really not have much to do if you’re coming to check up on me all the time,” Olivier spoke suddenly, voice muddled and groggy. “You don’t get bonuses for caring.” 

Jericho stared at Olivier’s back for a moment before reaching out and placing his hand on top of the prince’s head. A familiar jolt of electricity ran through Jericho’s body at the touch, and Olivier stiffened beneath his palm. The prince immediately shot up and whipped around, eyes wide, cheeks flushed. He scanned all three of them before he reached out and touched Jericho’s chest.

“You’re… really here.”

Bingo, kid, Cadence greeted him with a mock salute. 

Jericho felt an uncomfortable heaviness weigh down his chest. 

“Trystan…” Olivier whispered, pulling back his hand. “Trystan and Marta. Oran… Saints… I…” 

A flame of tight anguish burned at Jericho’s stomach paired with a sense of dread, guilt, and loss.

“Atienna’s here….” Olivier murmured after a beat. “I saw her a couple of times earlier… but we… didn’t recognize each other.” He struggled up to a stand with the help of Jericho’s steadying arm, then glanced at Emilia. “Emilia…?” He sighed, then mumbled, “Well, I’m glad you’re okay…”

“I should be thanking you,” Emilia interjected quickly. “Without your medical Conductors, I’d be dead for sure. Even though you don’t know me… I… thank you, Your Highness.”

“It’s nothing really… and don’t call me that,” Olivier grumbled back before making his way to the door with Jericho supporting him. “If I touch Atienna, then everything will come back… right? You can… leave it to me then. It’d be weird if you did it.”

Emilia opened the door for him but startled when she found someone already standing behind it. Jericho startled too as he registered Atienna and Sefu at the threshold. Atienna’s gaze was distant and formal, her hands clasped together in front of her.

“Oh, hello, Prince Chance,” Atienna greeted him formally with a slight dip of her head. She averted her gaze slightly. “I hope I’m not disturbing you. I was wondering if you would like to join me for tea. Given everything that’s happened so far, I thought we both could use some… reprieve with everything that’s been happening in this country lately.”

“Uhm.” Olivier blankly reached out and touched her arm. He jolted immediately as did Atienna who took a step backward. Before either of them could say anything, Sefu immediately stepped between them with a glare.

“Sefu, it’s alright…” Atienna interjected, as she steadied herself and peered around him into the room. The corner of her eyes crinkled as she locked eyes with Olivier, Cadence, then Jericho himself.

Well, this is a very troublesome situation, don’t you think?

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