Five out of the six have reunited in the capital of Capricorn. While Atienna and Olive deal with a death and matter of diplomacy, Cadence, Maria, Jericho, and Emilia Bergmann head out in search for Werner’s family in hopes that Ludwig will be able to tell them the location of Marionnette Engel.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
When Cadence felt Leona’s icy hand wrapping around her own, she knew Francis was going to be pissed. Maria had been leading them to the building where she’d claimed to have spotted Werner’s family when the exchange had occurred. Cadence had immediately skidded to a halt—not from the shock of it but—because Jericho and Maria, who were a meter ahead of her, also slammed on the breaks. She crashed into Jericho and stumbled back to catch her footing. The pain and anguish at losing Trystan and Marta were still very poignant, so it took her a moment to get her bearings.
“—but the saint candidates.” Jericho stared at Maria, then turned back to Cadence. “They are the enemy. Why did Atienna—”
Bergmann peered at them in confusion from where she’d stopped a meter ahead. She jogged back to them. “Did… something happen?”
Distant gunfire peppered in the distance, causing Jericho to grab Cadence by the scruff and pull her into an adjacent alley alongside Maria and Bergmann. A handful of men and women holding pickets and flags stormed past them down the road. Bergmann made some hand signs that Cadence only vaguely recognized, and they remained silent until Bergmann let down her hand.
Cadence figured she’d definitely lost her common sense along with her mind agreeing to come along like this. “It’s nothin’ by the way, ‘Milia.”
It is ‘wrong’? Jericho stared down at her. Not nothing.
“We’re in a tight situation,” Cadence drew, peering at Atienna from the distance and feeling Olive’s horror and disbelief curl in her stomach. It took a moment for her to get her head around it. “Like I’ve been sayin’, we’re in over our heads. Atienna’s coverin’ us for whatever comes after this play.” She grimaced. It’s just a proposal. Nothin’s set in stone yet. But Cadence wondered if Atienna would laugh or frown if she brought up ‘circumstances.’
Maria’s perturbed expression brightened. “So it is like a pretend play? And Atienna is concerned and wants to keep us safe? Well, there is no need to be when I am here, yes? I will—”
“‘—not lose anyone else.’ Don’t doubt ya a bit, sunshine,” Cadence said. “But let’s just focus on the ‘now,’ and leave that for the more politically-inclined ta think ahead and clean it up, okay?”
* * *
When they reached the building in question, Cadence managed to convince Jericho and Maria to hang back while she transmuted over herself the appearance of a ranked watchmaster Militärpolizei officer—one ‘Gevehard Baasch,’ which was a mouthful to say—who was in command of the police force of this section of the city. Bergmann’s specifications of the man were alarmingly precise, despite her saying that she’d only met the man twice. Personally, Cadence still really didn’t understand the whole Capricornian political rank-and-file scheme, but she understood the concept of there always being a top dog.
After getting the details of the elder, curly-mustached Baasch’s demeanor from Bergmann—it was quite clear that Bergmann was not a fan of the man—Cadence hobbled her way into the building—rather, the hotel. It wasn’t a shabby one either. Nice wallpaper, red-carpeted floor, a chandelier here and there. The emptiness of the hotel halls, however, gave the entire place a disorientingly creepy feel. The mahogany-framed photos of eerily empty scenes—a couple of unoccupied chairs surrounding a lace-clothed dining table and an empty ballroom—hanging along the walls didn’t help with the creepiness either. Hotel needed a better decorator, Cadence decided.
Upon reaching the second-story floor, she rolled her neck and approached the only door that was spilling out light from its cracks. As soon as she opened that door and stepped into the room, she was greeted by half-a-dozen salutes, all given in unison. She returned the gesture stiffly, taking the time to survey the room. The walls were cream-colored, and it was sparse of furniture. Just a three-person sofa—an expensive-looking one—fitting Viktoria, Werner’s father, and Werner’s mother in that order. Ludwig was pulled up to the singular window on the opposite wall. Six guards total—two who had that ‘fresh from the academy’ feel.
Good to know.
Casually, as she approached the youngest officer and inspected his uniform, she asked, “Have you all been holding up well?”
“Yes, sir,” came his reply as he stiffened. “Thank you for your concern, Watchmaster Baasch. We weren’t expecting you…”
“Good,” she said, nodding, then pulling away and folding her hands behind her back. She eyed the gold wristwatch on his arm. “Have any of you received word on whether or not the others who were accompanying the Waltz family will be under our watch?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ludwig turn and look up at her at this.
“We’re not sure, sir. I wouldn’t think so since those guys are being investigated for treason,” the officer said. “Besides, wouldn’t the riot police have that information…?”
“All the Border Force knows how to do is shoot things down,” another officer grumbled. “It’s not surprising they got pulled into that nonsense.”
Indignation flared in Cadence’s chest at the insult, but she shoved it aside. Not the time.
Cadence plucked a name from memory—one of the names Bergmann had provided to her when describing Baasch—and said, “Blitzfeld has been asking me about it nonstop.”
“It’s always Blitzfeld,” one of them grumbled. “Poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong just because he got promoted to watchmaster too? The nerve. It wasn’t too long ago that he was just stuck on desk duty.”
Hm. So they disliked Blitzfeld. Talk about lucky.
“Blitzfeld is bringing his own unit to take over here,” Cadence continued. “You’ve been ordered to pull out and return to the station.”
An eruption of protests resounded.
“That’s not fair, sir, “ the younger officer argued. “They just want us to take their place out there risking our lives—”
So that was how it was. Eh.
“Well, it’s duty,” said another.
Cadence placed a hand on the younger officer’s wrist and gave him a pat on the back. She undid the latch of his watch, thought better of it, and reclasped it. “I’ll keep watch until they arrive. I heard that most of the riot police have taken care of those Augen disrupters, so I doubt you have much to worry about.”
Clear relief broke across their faces, causing her to feel a bit of guilt. The officers then gathered together and filtered out of the room in an orderly fashion. Sparing Werner’s family a half-smile, she peered out the window and tuned her ears. When she closed her eyes, she could see through Jericho’s and Maria’s—although it was fuzzy and dizzying. The two were perched outside the exit of the building alongside Bergmann; and when the door swung open and the grumbling military poice officers stepped outside, the two launched themselves at them. A butt of the hilt of Maria’s sword there, an uppercut from the edge of Jericho’s suitcase there, Bergmann slamming a couple of them against the wall with conducted earth here, and suppression cuffs all around.
With a nod of content, Cadence rolled up the window and stepped back. It took just a minute for Jericho, Maria, and Bergmann to climb into the room from the fire escape. Behind her, she could hear Viktoria and Werner’s mother gasp in unison.
Maria paid them no mind, sweeping into the room and twirling out one of Francis’s proto-conductors. She spilled the black liquid out on the carpet, tapped the proto-conductor against it, and reached into the gate that appeared there. When she pulled her arm back out, Lita was dangling from her hand. Maria tugged her up into the air, caught her before she fell, and then placed her on her feet on the ground.
“Surprise!” Maria sang, turning to Werner’s family sitting stiffly on the sofa. “Lita is here!”
Cadence had to admit that Lita’s and Maria’s reunion when Maria had first stepped into Francis’s windowless room when traversing through one of Francis’s gates earlier had been a bit cute. The two were clearly fond of each other, leaving Cadence to wonder if it was possible for her and Nico to have a reunion similarly. Bah. She brushed the thought aside. Lita was still a brat though.
Maria guided Lita around to Werner’s family, and the girl touched them and inspected them through her conducting glasses.
Lita shook her head. “They’re not ‘infected.’”
Maria beamed. “Thank you, my dear Lita. Now you will return for a little while longer, yes? This is a big country, no? Let us not lose you!”
Lita looked somber at this but obliged, hopping back into the gate. Werner’s mother, on the other hand, looked faint as she watched the gate dim into nothing.
“So you’re…?” Ludwig began, coming up to them slowly, completely unalarmed by their intrusion.
Made sense. He was a Waltz.
Intuition, came Jericho’s thought. His response indicates he knows that Scorpio’s spore was cut out of Werner, meaning he has met and spoken to Werner.
Cadence studied Ludwig for a moment.
The memories were very faint, but she recalled the day Ludwig had stormed out of the Waltz house, leaving behind a startled Werner and Viktoria. To pursue his own path and dreams and all that. She didn’t particularly blame him. She doubted he would’ve been able to do anything with the way he was back then. That time apart allowed him to pull himself together—
Cadence suddenly thought of Nico.
Or maybe it was all an excuse, she rebutted. Or maybe she was making the excuse. Bah—not the time to be thinking about that—
You are afraid of being left behind, my lovely Cadence?
Cadence winced. That’s a private thought, sunshine.
You do not have to worry about that, my dear, Maria continued. We are connected, yes? And Jericho and I are strong. We will not leave anyone behind. Not you, especially, yes? I will always be here because I will not die. Do not worry.
“I agree,” Jericho said out loud.
Cadence sighed and rubbed her neck. You two are definitely somethin’ else. Charmin’ and leg-puller—the both of ya. It’s more complicated than that. But she couldn’t deny what a comfort those words were.
Shrugging, Cadence snapped her fingers to dispel her transmutation and then bowed at Werner’s family. “Cadence Morello, at your service. We had a nice dinner and part of a train ride together if I’m rememberin’ correctly.” She pointed at Jericho, who was looking around the room carefully. “Peacekeepin’ Agent Jericho. Ya vibed together in that shelter according to him.” She gestured to Maria, who was still hanging half-out of the window. “And pretty sure all of ya are familiar with Maria here.” She nodded at Bergmann. “Then there’s darlin ‘Milia. Werner’s corporal.”
Werner’s mother visibly stiffened. “What is this? Are we being held hostage?”
“You were before,” Jericho stated, pulling out his identification badge and flashing it to her—right-side-up for once. “You are now under the care of Ophiuchus.”
“You’re all real… ” Viktoria whispered, rising from the sofa.
Cadence arched a brow. “What ya thought we were some fairytale? Ya were workin’ with us, weren’t ya? Or did ya think it was a psychological vitae mishap thing?” She thought for a beat. “Kinda is.”
“I’m not sure what I thought…” Viktoria murmured. “But to think that you’re all living, breathing people…”
Cadence chortled. “We’re better in person, right?” She glanced at Werner’s father, eyed his unchanging expression, and grimaced inwardly. What an unapproachable guy. She paused, moving on to study Werner’s mother. Not as unapproachable as her though. Crazy lady. She grimaced inwardly as memories of her own mother flitted to just below the surface of her mind.
“Don’t be worried, my dear Cadence!” Maria sang as she approached the windowsill. “I took care of that!”
Cadence arched a brow. What does that mean, sunshine…? Anyways. She turned to Ludwig. “Anyway, why’ve they got ya separated from the other loyal folk? In such a nice place too? Have ya seen the lieutenant? Ya seen, Nico?” She glanced at Jericho. “And Alice—the peacekeeper?”
Ludwig nodded, studying her very carefully. “I saw most of them when the military police rounded us together in some interrogation room—Captain Weingartner and Major General von Spiel too. Not the peacekeeper. She wasn’t detained with us. I haven’t seen her since we were rounded up.”
Jericho’s grip on his suitcase tightened.
Cadence arched a brow. “Von Spiel and Weingartner? Heard from Francis that those two guys split…”
“The ELPIS Leader…?” Ludwig frowned. “So he got away…” He cleared his throat. “Weingartner and Von Spiel weren’t so lucky. I’m not sure if it was through one of Scorpio’s mediums or if they slipped up somehow, but they were being questioned with us. But… ”
Saints. Why was there always a ‘but’?
“When we were being questioned, Von Spiel made up some elaborate ruse that he was taking point on some covert operation and gathering information for the state against Weingartner’s ‘treasonous actions’.”
“So, he threw all of ya under the bus,” Cadence noted.
“He’s a very shrewd man…” Ludwig agreed.
A shrewd man or a smart man?
“Von Spiel, huh?” Cadence glanced at Jericho then Maria. Not surprised seein’ how his son went out. “Well, ta each their own…”
“After they finished detaining and questioning us, they decided that we—” Ludwig nodded back to his family. “—weren’t involved. The way they were talking about it…” He clasped his hands together. “It looks like they’re going with some story about the Augen using illegal manipulation methods provided to them by ELPIS to indoctrinate members.”
“That is technically true,” Jericho stated. “The Augen are being used to transmit Scorpio’s spores.”
Ludwig’s expression darkened.
Time to switch gears.
“So… does Ophiuchus have enough of this ‘probable cause’ thing ta really intervene, detective?” Cadence pressed. “The ELPIS Department’s already here, but they seem a little suspect and don’t seem to be doin’ much—no offense. Havin’ actual peacekeepers here cuttin’ down Scorpio’s spores and offshoots would make me feel a lot more comfortable.” She glanced at Jericho. “I mean, that’s why Alice, Gabrielle, and… that’s why they’re here, right? Ta get all the deets ta make the decision. Ain’t it enough details at this point?”
“Unsure,” Jericho replied—and Cadence could see his mind turning over law, cause, and a bunch of other fancy legal terms. “Violation of the living manipulation cause would bring in the Conductor Regulation Department. But the Augen movement is a national political movement confined to inside Capricorn. If Capricorn makes the report and request to Ophiuchus, then they will intervene. Definite.”
Of course. It was all complicated to the point of not working. Made Cadence wonder what the purpose of Ophiuchus was sometimes, especially with all the new information they’d been learning about it recently.
Jericho’s face fell slightly.
Hey, I didn’t mean it like that, Cadence reassured him. And despite it bein’ convoluted, ya still make it work. You’re good, detective. I ain’t lyin’.
Jericho acknowledged her with a nod before shifting his suitcase to his other hand. She could faintly sense another unease there, but she couldn’t tell exactly what it was caused by—because even Jericho didn’t know.
“So Alice is still a no. But Nico and the lieutenant…” Cadence turned back to Ludwig. “Ya got at least an inklin’ of where they are?”
“Werner… I spoke with Werner briefly after that,” Ludwig drew slowly, confirming Jericho’s suspicions. “But he didn’t seem to remember anything that happened these past few weeks.” He looked up at her. “He didn’t even have any idea about True Conductors, but I was barely able to get a word in so—”
“He was normal,” Werner’s mother interjected in a whisper, eyes narrowing into a glare. When Maria glanced at her, however, she quieted and looked away.
“Yeah… There’s been an issue with that.” Cadence sighed, scratching her head. “The not rememberin’ thing, obviously.”
“Ah, so Werner is grumpy again?” Maria wondered from the windowsill.
“I don’t know where he is now though,” Ludwig muttered, staring at Maria. “The police are keeping communication channels closed to ‘protect’ us. The last time I spoke with him earlier, he was being assigned a military police unit because they’re short on hand.”
“How about Nico and the others?” Cadence pressed, feeling her stomach beginning to do flips.
“I don’t know either. They’re being detained somewhere separately. Unlike us, they weren’t given a pass,” Ludwig muttered. “I’m sorry. I wish I could be more helpful.”
“Marionette Engel,” Jericho pressed, walking forward. “The Augen. Where are they? You said you knew the movements. Tell us.” He glanced at Cadence and added, “Please.”
After arching a brow at him, Ludwig put a hand to his chin. “One of our scheduled demonstrations—our largest one—was supposed to be in the Herz District—two districts away from all the main government buildings…” His eyes widened, and his hand fell to his lap. “Are you planning on cutting out Scorpio’s spore from Marionette…? We planned for that demonstration to have over 75 people participating. And if it’s just you four… How—”
“Not sure if ya’ve seen sunshine and detective in action, but they can probably handle twice that amount of people.” Cadence hobbled forward to stand beside Jericho and rapped against his chest with the back of her hand. “Trust me.”
Ludwig stared at Jericho then Maria before leaning back in his chair. “So this is how it ends…” He grimaced. “The Verbundene Augen is more than a puppet. Marionette’s vision is beyond Scorpio. I know. I was a part of it. All we wanted was the people we care about to not have to… to not have to go through the same things we did. Was one war not enough?” He clenched his fists. “All the people who are talking about ‘sacrificing for the greater good’—the people who’re war fanatics—are the ones who push people like us onto the frontlines while they sit at their desks and spend their days filing paperwork. If you’re that far away from the frontlines, how can you see that it’s not worth it? We weren’t wrong. We weren’t.”
Ideas might not be wrong, but perhaps the people implementing those ideas were—even if they had the best intentions.
Bergmann sent Ludwig a sympathetic look as she studied her conducting glove.
“Ludwig,” Werner’s mother hissed, her voice causing a strange chill to shoot up Cadence’s spine, “enough—”
That was how movements came and went. They seldom stayed the way they were intended and instead were changed as the ideas of the movement were passed on down to different members. And if a bit of violence entered into the equation to push the movement forward…Was that justice? Was that right if the end goal was met? To the members of the Augen right now, it was a wonder if they would be considered ‘evil’ by their standards.
“Atienna…” Jericho murmured.
Cadence perked her head up and followed his gaze to the corner of the room where Atienna’s and Olive’s images stood flickering. Cadence could barely make out their surroundings in the intense haze of Olive’s tumultuous emotions.
That’s why ELPIS opted for resistors, isn’t it? Atienna continued. So their ideals and purpose remain pure and unchanged.
Cadence shrugged. We could always ask Francis if you’re interested. Ya know he likes talkin’ a lot about that stuff now.
The corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled before she looked aside. We have to start thinking about what will happen after this. If we truly want to be able to live safely and comfortably for now until we decide what to do next—
Olive stared at her with a mixture of disbelief, apprehension, and confusion.
The Kaiser can’t be in his position anymore… Atienna continued, wrapping her arms around her stomach. I mean, I don’t believe he will hold his position much longer with everything that’s been occurring. If he still is the head of the state after this by using an iron fist, then… I wonder what that will mean for not only Capricorn but for us… and for Werner.
Nothing good obviously, Cadence knew, but since Atienna had struck a deal with Leona, then…
I… have a suggestion, Atienna continued.
The two generals that Werner’s unit held captive… Francis said Scorpio let them go. They’re most likely no longer loyal to the Kaiser and his plan after his betrayal. Since they’re in the chancellery cabinet, they have a high chance of taking his position after all of this—especially since the Kaiser is unmarried and doesn’t have an heir. So if we offer them protection until this ends maybe… Her brows furrowed. On another note, after these sorts of events happen in history, a scapegoat is always needed. Whether we try to change things or not, that will most likely be Marionette or the Kaiser… Well, we should try our best to keep them alive then, don’t you think?
“Man… that’s really scrappin’ the bottom of the barrel though, ain’t it?” Cadence sighed, ruffling her hair. “Not that I’m one to talk. All this political stuff is givin’ me a headache. We’d have ta find ‘em first too, right? The generals?”
“Find who?” Ludwig looked at them in confusion. When Cadence explained it to him, he bristled. “If old members of the chancellery take the Kaiser’s place, then nothing will change!”
“Change is already happening all around us, my dear Ludwig,” Maria spoke suddenly. “Change does not happen on the surface but from within—just like strength, yes? If you think nothing has changed, then that just means what is inside has not changed.” She pulled herself in from the windowsill, stepped in front of the man, and then studied his face. Her own face softened strangely. “But do not worry. We will take care of everything—I know you are thinking about joining us, but I think Werner will be happy if you find someplace else.”
Ludwig made a face. “What—”
“I think Werner has regrets like me. Things that should have been said, but weren’t, yes?” Maria reached out and tapped his nose. “But I will tell you instead—‘Be safe.’”
Cadence reached into her pocket, dug out Francis’s proto-conductor, and dropped it into Ludwig’s waiting palm. “Good luck protectin’ the family, Colonel.”
Francis’s gates were truly exciting. Maria wished she could explore that white ‘space between the gates’ forever, but Francis had become boringly strict since he’d become Theta and had forced her out when she’d tried staying.
Now, alongside Cadence, Jericho, and Bergmann, Maria stood on the edge of the roof of a medium-sized, gothic-esque building that oversaw a large courtyard surrounded by closely stacked buildings. There were only four entrances into this courtyard—four thin alleyways barely visible between the north, south, east, and west buildings. And all of them were blocked by stacked wooden chairs and wooden signs. Makeshift barricades. At the center of this barricaded square stood a large group of men, women, and even some children. Some of them held picket signs, some of them were painted blue from head to toe, and even more some stood gallantly in military uniforms. Most had weapons. Among them Maria spotted one or two who were dressed in a general’s uniform. Several of the Augen members were injured, laying on gurneys and being attended to by others. And at the center of all of them stood Marionette Engel, hair frazzled, signature scarf billowing in the wind, a bandage wrapped around her bleeding head, proclaiming something fiery and passionate that Maria could not hear from this distance.
“It reminds me of the border…” Bergmann whispered from where she knelt at the edge of the roof. “I… can’t believe all of this has happened so… fast. It feels like we were just crossing back over back from Argo a couple of hours ago.”
Maria watched as Cadence fell into a crouch beside Bergmann and peered over the roof’s edge with her.
“Do you think… we can get close enough to Marionette without getting caught?” Bergmann mumbled to herself. “From what I understand… the lieutenant and you all are critical assets to this ‘Scorpio,’ so he wouldn’t be willing to infect you again, right?” She peered down towards the crowd. “But that’s risky too… So, I could try creating an earth pit beneath them to trap them, but I’d need to be close enough to do it… and they’re too spread out… and I’m sure they’d shoot me before I could get them all under.”
Maria chuckled. “Why are we discussing when we can just go down and cut Scorpio out of Marionette just like that?”
“Yeah, I’m not suicidal enough to charge headfirst into things, sunshine,” Cadence interjected. “Not even for you, ‘Milia. We don’t even know how many people down there are actually infected and willin’ ta spare us for one.”
“Does it matter?” Maria inquired, smiling. “I can cut them down before they cut me.”
“I don’t doubt ya, sunshine,” Cadence said, “but ya gotta remember. Not all of us are as amazin’ or as strong as ya.”
“Oh, that’s right…” Maria murmured.
Yes, she needed to be more careful when speaking and acting, didn’t she? ‘ Considerate,’ was the word Atienna liked to say all the time. She was strong, but there was strength of words outside of strength of mind and body. If she said something that caused someone to run off again and if that someone was taken away from her when they ran off—Maria knew she would not be very happy. Happiness was not just her own—
“—so, we need to lure the Augen members away from Marionette…” Bergmann was saying when Maria tuned into the conversation again.
Cadence scratched her head. “ Ya know I’m not a strategist, but I say let’s ‘Twin Cities’ it.”
“‘Twin Cities it’?” Bergmann repeated slowly. “Oh—you mean those piano keys that appeared all over the city that day… That was you…?”
“Yours truly,” Cadence replied with a half-wink. “Hope ya enjoyed the light show.”
Bergmann chuckled. “I’m not a strategist either—hated it at the academy—but… We could combine both tactics. My conducting and yours. Most of Lieutenant Waltz’s strategies come from fitting together different textbook tactics, so it could work.”
Cadence arched a brow. “Wait—ya don’t come up with all those strategies and tactics on your own?”
Bergmann chuckled again. “Of course not. Aren’t you connected to Lieutenant Waltz? It’s hard to think of entirely new tactics that actually work on the spot, so you reference old tactics used in the past and adapt them to the situation.” She shook her gloved hand. “The pitfall idea is something the lieutenant had me use before on a different operation.”
“What an educational experience,” Cadence replied.
“My idea is that we go down there invisibly—like how you did in the Twin Cities. I can create pitfalls behind the Augen members at certain areas, and then we can lure them into them with your illusions. We’ll stay at a safe distance by having you transmute your illusions through Mr. Foxman’s gate…”
“Oh, you are smart, my dear Emilia!” Maria sang. “Say, would you like to join my crew? You will still be a part of Werner’s crew, of course, but you can come with me whenever Werner is being too grumpy, yes?”
Bergmann offered another shy, confused chuckle at this before turning back to Cadence. “What do you think?”
Like hell, I’m goin’ down there—but still, Cadence smiled charmingly. “Well, can’t deny a great idea.” She turned away from Bergmann and eyed them. Saints, let me channel both of ya somehow. I’m pissin’ myself.
Jericho gave her a thumbs up.
While Bergmann and Cadence slipped into a gate that let them out in the alleyway just outside the courtyard, Maria and Jericho entered another gate that popped them out of a building closer to Marionette. When Maria peered over the building’s edge and spied Marionette just below her, she was tempted to launch herself forward and take the woman down just like that. But, instead, she waited. She was not quite used to letting others do things first and let them ‘take the lead’ but—as Werner said—‘ patience.’ She had to make sure she didn’t lose anyone else—
“You say that frequently. ‘I will not lose anyone else.’” Jericho whispered, coming to stand beside her and then staring. “Intuition. It is because of Conta.”
Maria blinked at him before humming in thought.
“Intuition…” Jericho continued. “You are… not as happy as before. You are still happy, but not as happy. You are bright, but not as bright. You are… sad?”
Maria tilted her head in thought, continuing to hum. “Well, yes, I’m a little bit sadder—but that is natural, no? I mean, if you lose something, would you not be sad? Especially if you are strong enough not to lose those things?”
Jericho shifted in place. “You came and stayed. Even though you have another goal. Thank you.”
“What are you talking about, my dear? Isn’t it the same for you?” Maria chuckled.
Jericho nodded, then tilted his head back at her. “We… both lost things. And we don’t understand things.” He looked troubled and sad just as Conta had been that night in the Twin Cities.
Maria hummed. “Understanding? Yes… but you understand when you go along the journey, no? Besides, we will find those things, yes? I will find Conta and that adventurer who took me from the orphanage, and you will find the one who forced you into this ELPIS.”
“But it’s more than that. With understanding.”
Maria peered at him.
Jericho stared down at his suitcase. “And I am not sure. If that is what I want. Revenge, yes, because that is justice. Or everything will be for nothing. But how to do it. ELPIS… Theta.”
“Well, you will figure it out eventually, my dear Jericho,” Maria replied. “You do not have to decide now, yes? I am taking the long way around too, you see? It is the journey, not the destination, as they say.”
Jericho’s shoulders relaxed slightly, then he side-glanced at her. “You want to go after that adventurer because he was the one point in your life where you did not feel in control. I remember you said that. Do you feel in control now?”
Maria fell into a crouch in response. Jericho followed suit, sinking beside her. She reached out into the moonlit dark and closed her hand into a fist. “If I ever don’t feel like I am in control, my dear Jericho, I reach out and take control. We are at the center of our own world. We shape and change it with our own hands. No one controls you, Jericho, but you. And no one controls me but me.”
Jericho copied her gesture, holding out his closed fist parallel to hers. He then eyed her fist before shifting slightly and bumping his against hers. She blinked in surprise at this.
“Is that not customary?” Jericho stared at her, perplexed. “We are… making a team commitment. Or is this something else?”
Maria’s lips pulled up higher. “My dear—”
“—and done,” came Cadence’s voice. I know I was the one down there in the pits, but are the both of ya okay?
Maria turned to see Cadence and Bergmann rise out of the gate behind her before beaming brightly. She then opened another gate with Francis’s proto-conductor and pulled Lita from it. Upon request, Lita hopped onto her back, wrapping her arms around her neck and her legs around her waist. Lita’s hammering heartbeat bled out from her chest and into Maria’s back, and then into Maria’s heart. It was quite exhilirating.
Nodding, Cadence sank to the floor in front of Francis’s gate and held her ringed fingers over the pale tangerine glow. Copper light spilled into the gate from her hands, reappearing in a burst of copper from down the alleyway opposite of their building. As a cool draft of wind flooded the courtyard, a handful of figures began to stumble over the barricade and pour out from the alleyway into the square where the Augen gathered. Men and women in military officer uniforms, all wielding various conductors. But all of them were illusions. Cadence’s conducting was truly something else.
One of the Augen members below let out a shout of alarm as they caught sight of the approaching police officers. Some fled down the other alleys, while others shouted to bear arms and began firing at the officers with conducting rifles.
Maria turned to glance at Cadence’s progress, but—
No, keep lookin’ at ‘em, so I can adjust my transmutation, sunshine.
Maria returned her attention to the scene and found that several of the illusionary officers were now on the ground ‘dead’ with vitae-ray marks scorched into them, while the ones who were still standing were retreating back into the alleyway they’d emerged from.
Finally, some of the Augen members who were firing their weapons took the bait and chased after the retreating officers. Moved by the first pursuers, more and more of the Augen members followed suit. One Augen man reached the officers first, swinging his conducting blade at a female officer only for it to phase right through her. The Augen man barely had the time to react as he stumbled forward, because shortly after he phased right through the ground—the illusion of the ground.
“It’s a trap!” one of them exclaimed, but it was too late.
They toppled over each other as they scrambled back and fell blindly into the invisible pitfalls. Maria imagined that the ones who were trying to climb back up out of the pit were being knocked back down by the tumbling bodies of other Augen members. By the end of the chaos, only thirty or so of the Augen remained, a quarter of them being the ones lying in stretchers. The illusory police officers that they’d been fighting faded into nothing in a burst of copper light as did half of the ground of the courtyard which revealed pitfalls full of groaning Augen members.
“I’m beat,” Cadence panted, falling flat on her back.
“You are amazing!” Maria cheered before placing a firm foot at the edge of the building and drawing out her blade from her sheathe. She whispered to Lita over her shoulder. “And now we will show them how amazing we are, yes?”
“Wait—” Bergmann began
But Maria scaled down the building quickly, leaping from fire escape to iron ladder to fire escape as she descended. Marionette turned to her at the sound of the metal clangs, eyes widening as she registered Maria’s approach. Before Maria could greet Marionette, however, a large, balding, and burly man stepped defensively in front of her. Maria used the man’s chest as a springboard, launched herself backwards, and landed deftly on her feet. She cracked the hilt of her blade against a man who was charging at her from behind with a conducting blade after she’d dodged his initially downwards swing. She then charged and slashed at another Augen member who was trying to stab her with a knife before noting that yet another was aiming a conducting rifle at her a meter or so away. Before she could get to the man, however, the edge of a suitcase cracked against his temple, and he fell to the ground like a ragdoll. After slapping a pair of suppression cuffs around this man’s wrists, Jericho ran up beside her and stared at the large man in front of Marionette. The man’s muscles were bulging out from the sleeves of his shirt and his neck seemed almost thicker than her own waist. He towered for above her. A titan.
Jericho nodded, seeming to agree.
Continuing to admire the breadth of the large man, Maria stabbed through the leg of a woman who was reaching for her with a conductor-gloved hand. She then stole the conducting blade from the man who had charged at her earlier, activating it with some difficulty in a burst of gold and bringing it up to block the swing of another conducting blade. After kicking back the woman wielding that blade and sending her stumbling back into another man, Maria found herself almost back-to-back with Jericho who had taken out his conductor from his suitcase but had yet to activate it. A glance over her shoulder had informed her that Jericho had taken care of quite a few Augen members.
“This one now, Jeri!” Maria declared, discarding her stolen conducting blade and pointing her other blade at the large man.
Jericho nodded as she charged forth. The large man whipped out a conducting rifle and fired at her, but she quickly ducked below it and came up at his side. As she dodged a swing of his fist, she wrapped her arms around his arm and scaled him quickly until she swung herself up to a seat around his shoulders. Jericho meanwhile had come at the man from the opposite direction and had successfully slapped a suppression cuff around one of his wrists during her distraction. As the man reached for Jericho, Maria quickly slashed at the man’s back with her blade causing him to abandon his pursuit of Jericho in favor of her. As he reached for her instead, she scaled down his body and stabbed her blade into the back of his leg. He staggered forward causing Jericho to throw his body at the man’s other leg. With that, the man stumbled to his knees, giving Jericho the opportunity to slap the other cuff over the man’s other wrist. As he did this, Maria hopped up to a stand and offered Jericho a high-five which he returned with slight confusion.
Saints… Ain’t that excessive—
As the large man fell forward, Marionette who was still standing behind him took a step back. Another Augen member rushed forward at them from behind Marionette, but Jericho darted past Marionette and met the Augen member with edge of his suitcase. Before Marionette could escape any further, Maria grabbed a hold of her arm, jerking her close as Lita reached forward. She called out excitedly—“Jericho!”
Jericho felt uncomfortable. He knew he needed to use his conductor on Marionette—even though he’d promised Alice only to use it against ELPIS. Because he had to. But whenever he thought of even activating his conductor, his head spun and his stomach tightened as memories of those Capricornian men and women disintegrating into nothing barraged his mind. Cycles but not the same. The past threatened to spill over into his present.
Now as he held it in his right hand and his suitcase in his left, he tried his best to focus on Maria beside him and Cadence above him. It made things simpler, made it easier to focus on the present reality. But when Maria called out his name and he saw that she had Marionette in her hold, he felt his head spin again. As he approached the two women, images of Marionette shattering into dust plagued his mind and sent him spiraling into the past. In his confusion, he reached out desperately for Maria—
—and she reached back.
Like I said, my dear Jericho, her voice resounded in his ears, you are strong. And because you are strong, you can show her mercy and all of the ones who are connected to her tower too, no? Is that not justice? Scorpio is doing the same things to them as he did to you, no?
Justice. And mercy…? To think his conducting ability could offer the latter was odd.
“Don’t…” Marionette’s whisper reached Jericho’s ears from Maria’s.
Jericho flicked on his conductor and watched as his vitae spilled out into an off-white whip. He flicked it again, causing the vitae to straighten and thin like a needle.
Viewing the front of Marionette’s chest and the area Lita was pointing to through Maria’s eyes, Jericho stepped forward and drove his conductor—guided by Maria’s ghostly but steady hands—through the woman’s back. Marionette gasped and stiffened immediately. Jericho’s blood roared in his ears, but he relaxed when he saw her still standing before him.
A series of resounding thuds echoed around the courtyard as several of the lingering Augen members fell to the ground unconscious—among them, the generals. A handful of them remained standing, staring at the fallen with fear and confusion.
Heart still hammering, Jericho pulled out his conductor and flicked it off. Marionette turned to him, her expression filled with such pain and horror that he for a moment thought he had stabbed her through incorrectly.
“Our movement… my movement…” Marionette whispered, switching to her native tongue, her knees buckling beneath her as her gaze swept the desolate courtyard. “Don’t you see? Nothing will change…! Absolutely nothing… He’ll win.”
“He’s already won, sweetheart,” Jericho found himself saying, the words feeling strange on his tongue.
What’s all this about ‘my’ movement, anyway? came Cadence’s continuing thought. Ain’t that a little too greedy?
“Not Scorpio,” Marionette whispered. “The Kaiser.”
Frowning, Jericho slapped a pair of suppression cuffs over her and then caught her as she fell. As he lowered her to the ground, a burst of cool air tickled his back and the sound of soft, wet footsteps came from behind him. Maria’s face brightened and she waved wildly. Jericho turned his head and felt shame curl in his stomach.
“Francis,” he said.
Francis merely nodded, ignoring the surrounding confused Augen members as he crouched beside him and examined Marionette. “You performed well. Another tower has been removed.”
‘You performed well’? Man, Francis’s people skills still are kinda shot, huh? Talk about waitin’ until the last minute ta enter the scene.
“Now only one more tower remains,” Francis continued, staring at Jericho. “But I’m here to tell you something else. I’ve found Nico, Cadence. And the True Conductor connected to you too.”
Feeling Cadence’s relief curl in his chest, Jericho pressed, “And Alice?”
Francis shook his head, before continuing: “It’s bad. I don’t have gates on the actual site location—they’ve been removed—so I wasn’t able to see Nico’s or the others’ conditions.”
“Where?” Jericho pressed.
“The execution tower at the military central district.”