Self-proclaimed adventurer and pirate captain Maria Gloria-Fernandez was seemingly the only one to be the only one untouched by Scorpio’s machinations through Capricorn in the previous year. With her spirits high, she decided to set sail to her home country of Leo alongside Veles and her crew of Specialist children and other strays in search of the orphanage she grew up in. Her reasons for this decision…
Luca D’Angelo, First Chairman of the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: [Not Submitted]
Twin bells chimed in the distance. One bellowed low and throaty, the other high and trilling. The ghosts of their brass rings still hung in the air harmoniously even after the bells themselves had long finished their toll.
Maria opened her eyes, ears tuned to the caws of the seagulls flapping high above her head. She was lying on the red stucco roof of a tall stone building that was squeezed in between much smaller buildings. Tiny, slit-like windows that ran from roof to floor dotted the looming white-bricked buildings lined up on the street across from her. On the large cobblestone road that divided their buildings, a group of young children ran back and forth, kicking a dusty ball.
Those were not Maria’s children, of course. Her children and crew were either dozing on the rooftop beside her or napping beneath the shade on all the straw piled up against the building on the ground behind her—half of them at least. The other half were still on her ship docked in the bay that Maria could barely see in the distance beyond the roofs of the buildings in front of her. Veles had been among those who had remained on the ship, announcing loudly that he should be summoned when and only when the ‘perpetrator was found.’ Werner and Cadence cited a possible conflict of interest regarding her partnership with the bounty hunter, but Maria wasn’t too concerned. In the end, Werner had even gone back and said Veles was a valuable asset—whatever that meant. So, all was right!
One of the Monadic priests whistled with their fingers on the road below, and the playing children gathered around him. He performed a headcount before cheerily directing them up inside the white building across from her. As they disappeared into the building, Maria glimpsed the hanging sign nailed to its wooden door—
The Gloria Home for Happy Children.
Head Caretaker: Aurlio Felicia-Morales
A small body stirred at her side, distracting her from the scene. Lita uncurled from where she’d turned herself into a ball at the crook of Maria’s elbow. She blinked sleepily and mumbled something Maria couldn’t quite understand.
Lita’s ears were quite sensitive, so Maria was surprised she hadn’t awoken to the chime of the bells resting on top of the orphanage’s roof. Perhaps it had been a long night?
The others began to stir too. Giorgio shook himself as he snapped up to Maria’s right, while former sailor captain Morandi groggily complained about his back pain as he stretched his arms. Albatross, a Specialist adolescent whom Maria had named after a bird she’d seen passing by one day on the ship, rubbed his eyes as he slowly sat up from where he laid behind Maria. He was only a couple of years older than Lita—at least Atienna had guessed as much—and he was one of Maria’s favorites because of his eagerness. After yawning, Albatross stared at Lita for a moment before glancing at Maria, clearing his throat, and looking away.
Maria turned around to see Simon climbing up the metal ladder they’d stolen and set up against the wall of the building. His hair was riddled with pieces of gold straw as was his black Monadic robe, but despite his disheveled appearance, his smile was pleasant like usual.
“What’s the verdict, Captain?”
“This isn’t the one!” Maria sang just as she’d sung almost every day this past month. “The bells sound different. This isn’t where Conta and I were raised—no!”
Morandi sighed from beside her while Simon merely chuckled and asked, “So onto the next one then, Captain?”
Maria reached out and patted Simon on the head. “That’s right, my dear!”
That was what they had been doing for the past months—traveling from Monadic orphanage to Monadic orphanage in search of the one she’d grown up in. Her childhood years before she’d been picked up by that adventurer were a blur. Beige smudges of writing-filled chalkboards, boring lessons about Signum’s founding, monotonous pep-talks on the specialness of her existence—something she already knew—and somewhat flashy lessons in fencing. Out of all those memories from that time, the clearest and brightest were of Conta and running off together to jump in the sea. That was really all Maria had to go off of—her orphanage was somewhere near the sea. The face of the head Monadic priest as well as the name of the orphanage were lost to her—too many faces and places seen and touched to recall something so far in the past.
Cadence and Atienna tried to help her locate where her orphanage was through their own means, but Maria apparently did not recall enough details to make their attempts worthwhile.
Now, why was she set on finding her orphanage?
While Werner and Olive had wanted her to look into the Monadic orphanages in possible connection to the Monadic temples themselves and saint candidates, Maria’s purpose for her search was quite different. She had a hunch—intuition, as Jericho called it. Conta was here—at their old orphanage. Not Beta. Conta. Werner and Atienna were skeptical about it being Conta not Beta, but Olive had been optimistic. Maria was quite surprised by it. He’d always been the funny, brooding, biting type. His insults were entertaining—
Abruptly, Maria spied a younger man driving a v-ehicle with an attached wagon stacked high with hay along the road below her. She rose to her feet, grinning as she asked those around her, “You all remember the diner we all went to when we first came here, yes?”
A quartet of sleepy ‘yes’s rumbled behind her as four additional adolescents clambered up the ladder behind Maria.
Maria pointed into the distance. “Let us have a game, yes? Whoever reaches that diner first will choose what everyone else eats this morning!”
Half-mumbled ‘okay’s and tired cheers answered her.
“Where is the excitement?!” Maria boomed.
A chorus of cheers vibrated the air a second after as all the children snapped awake.
“Then, let’s begin!” With that, Maria threw Lita onto her back before grabbing hold of Morandi’s hand. While Lita beamed brightly at this, Morandi paled considerably. Before either could utter a word, she quickly scaled down the building using the square metal water pipes and small balconies along the wall. Lita clung tightly to her all the way, while Morandi was pulled along struggling, shrieking. With a final leap on some extended roofing, Maria launched herself at the haystack on the wagon behind the v-ehicle.
It exploded in an airy burst of gold as she landed on top of it on her feet. Morandi did not have such a graceful landing and smacked into the stack face-down. He groaned a second later, signaling all was right in the world. With that, she turned back to the roof she’d once been standing on and waved wildly at the ones who still stood there.
“The race has already started, yes?!” she called out to them. “Why are you still there?”
“That’s not fair!” Albatross cried from behind her as did several of the other adolescents. “You’re cheat—”
They disappeared from her view as the v-ehicle rounded a corner, and their cries were soon lost to the wind.
Morandi had already picked himself off the floor and was conversing with the driver of the v-ehicle through the back opening. The driver shrugged, nodded, and offered a thumbs-up at them.
When Morandi turned back to her, he sighed— “Aren’t you concerned about the children, Captain?”
“You know Simon and Giorgio are good with them!” Maria laughed and slapped him on the back.
“I think you just popped my back in place,” was Morandi’s response.
“Morandi, you are getting quite slow nowadays, no?” Maria asked as she studied him.
“It’s called old age, Captain,” Morandi replied, not unkindly as he relaxed down into the hay. “It happens to everyone.”
Morandi was quite old, Maria realized. Maybe even older than Captain Weingartner. He had children that he mentioned every once in a while, and he would always get a wistful look in his eyes when looking at the Specialist children. At times, Maria was quite curious about it and wanted to probe him for answers, but she suppressed the urge. Whatever he was reminiscing about, she hoped he would be good and well enough to continue on adventures with her till the end of time.
Before she could complete the thought, the radio perched on top of the dashboard of the v-ehicle began to crackle and twin voices sputtered out.
“—that’s right! We’re back with another daily dance with your hosts Louise Kuroihoshi and—”
“—Hideyoshi Bonnefoy here to present to you your daily election update!” The man cleared his throat. “Before we get started, let’s choose a random topic to talk about out of a hat—”
“Wait, are we allowed to do that, Hide? The boss man yelled at us a lot last time. ‘Stay on topic!’”—Louise’s voice came out deep and throaty before it returned back to its accented chirp—“right?”
“Well, think about it, Louise. Think about it hard. In a sense, isn’t everything technically on topic for everything? Even us speaking now about topics is related to the election because in the election all the chair people debate on topics!”
Lita’s brows furrowed as she shook her head. “That makes—”
“—so much sense!” Maria realized.
“Of course it makes sense, Louise!” Hideyoshi continued. “And look I’ve already chosen a stellar topic to talk about from our fancy raffle here today.”
“That’s right! The country Leo, where the sun never sets—”
“Oh my! The sun never sets on Leo?”
“No, the sun does set in Leo, silly. The sun sets everywhere!”
“Then why do they call it the country where the sun never sets, Hideyoshi…?”
A pause, then a cough. “It’s because we’re referring to Leo the ancestor, not the country! They say that Leo traveled far and wide in such a never-ending way that the sun never set on them once during their journey!”
“Amazing! I wish I could do that!”
“We’re doing that right now, Louise!” Another cough. “So now let’s get to the topic of the day before we talk about the elections. The news is that the Cancerian Duke of House Lune proposed to the princess of Leo—everyone’s heard about it already, right? Well, it turns out that the princess’s brother is very outspoken on anti-Ophiuchian politics. He’s even been throwing out wanting Leo to secede from Signum’s continental union and even suggested pulling out of the postwar treaty!”
“That’s right! He thinks Ophiuchus has too much control! Can you believe that! Long story short, some people think that the Leonian princess shares similar ideas and might push that ideology into Cancer too! And if he succeeds the throne…”
There was a long stretch of static-filled pause.
“Dear?” Hideyoshi tried. “Should we not talk about this next time then? You’re right. This topic isn’t very fun, is it—”
“Succession!” Louise gasped a second after. “Gossip! Excitement!”
“Drama! Politics! Factions—”
The v-ehicle driver switched off the radio, silencing the duo, as he shook his head.
It all sounded very much like fun in Maria’s opinion, although maybe a little confusing. She was half-tempted to reach over and turn the radio back on, but instead turned her attention to the countryscape rolling around her.
While most of the white buildings dotting the sides of the road were built rather close to one another, there were occasional stretches of rolling green fields ripe with red tomatoes on one side of the road and swaths of blue ocean view touching the horizon on the other. A thick wooden fence separated the fields from the dirt road, but Maria could still reach over and pluck a plump tomato from a vine which she handed to Lita. It was devoured in five bites.
The Leonian countryside was quite something. It wasn’t exactly filled with the excitement that Maria usually sought out, but instead held peace and calm. A good place to nap on roofs and to listen to the bells, the ocean, and the seagulls. The architecture of the buildings reminded Maria vaguely of some of the buildings she’d seen in Gemini—stucco, cobblestone, and everything in-between. Atienna had explained earlier that there was some historical significance behind their similarities, but Maria couldn’t bring the information to mind now.
Monadic temples dotted every other street corner. They were large monolithic buildings gated with pearly white pillars and filled with faceless white statues. The other five had thought they looked somewhat out of place amongst the architecture when she’d first gotten here, but Maria didn’t think so at all. Even that temple far off in the tomato fields looked just right. So free and open.
‘Free,’ she thought.
“You and Cadence are the only ones who are possibly free from observation by Scorpio’s mediums,” Werner had said to her not long after they had all gathered together in the capital of Capricorn. “You need to remain that way. Atienna’s deal is set in stone, but we must still attempt to work on a counter-offensive when we can. You cannot move around freely like you used to in order to maintain your advantage.”
Maria still thought that Werner worried too much, but he’d been a bit odd recently so she’d been going along with his requests. Everyone had been a bit odd recently. Not quite ‘odd’ in a negative connotation as many people painted the word as, but ‘odd’ as in different. Olive pondered it much more than Maria herself did, but Maria pondered on something he didn’t ponder on—his relationship with adorable little Lavi. Lavi, Aries, saint candidates—Maria knew Olive thought of these things often. But…
If he was so curious about Monadism, Lavi, and Aries, why did he not search deeper into the Ariesian Monadic temples when he had been in Aries? Maria herself had excitedly offered to join him on his journey—physically preferably, but psychically acceptably. Olive had denied it, however.
Aries is perhaps a little too close to him was what Atienna had thought at the time. Maria wondered about that even now. She also wondered about the very strange things that had been happening to the others lately. Everyone was off on a journey now! No, wait. Everyone besides Jericho. Maria wondered if he was bored being cooped up in the Serpens Establishment for these past few weeks.
Maria figured that now since Werner was off in Aquarius, Atienna in Cancer, Olive in Sagittarius, and Cadence in every other country on the map, Jericho could just adventure on through them. Experiencing it on one’s own was of course much more superior!
As Maria pondered over Werner and Atienna in particular, she came to think of what they’d been up to these past few days. Werner was visited by Voz and given a task he accepted without question despite his clear internal displeasure. Atienna was in a similar situation, although Maria had the feeling her perspective was a bit… different.
Still, if they didn’t want to do it, then why did they do it?—was what Maria would have asked them pointedly a year ago. She knew now that it was a bit more nuanced than that—even though she didn’t understand why Atienna had made the deal. Maria figured she should be more careful with her words. Francis had said some strange things about being careful with words earlier. Maria didn’t quite understand it and neither had Cadence at the time. ‘Careful’ was something Werner always highlighted, while words were something Maria believed Atienna enjoyed playing with. Still…
Maria knew she was strong. She had defeated Leo. Gilbert had told Werner that Alwin had said that “Leo was the best.” Maria had concluded that meant Leona was the best—strongest—saint candidate. In other words, the other saint candidates were weaker and Maria could easily defeat them. If they attempted to capture the others, Maria surely could swoop in to stop them. Even if those candidates were stronger in the end, she could still…
Then again, if she wasn’t too careful, she could lose not the fight but everything else. Unlike Cadence who believed she didn’t own anything, Maria thought contrarily. She believed—knew—she owned everything. Because she believed it, it was in the palm of her hands.
At this thought, Maria looked down at Lita who was sitting beside her playing with the hay. She looked to Morandi next and asked, “You won’t leave me, will you, Morandi?”
Morandi’s lips parted—“We feel sorrow for those who leave us, but truthfully—”
Maria blinked and suddenly Cadence’s image was now squeezed between her and the sailor.
Oh, mornin’, Sunshine! Cadence waved. Haven’t had an unplanned synchronization in a while. Sorry if ya heard anythin’ from my end. Francis was on one of his depressin’ spiels again.
Maria beamed and waved back. “It’s Cadence!”
Morandi glanced at her but sighed and nodded.
“Ya mind if I stick around?” Cadence asked. “And give ya extra pleasant company?”
Maria beamed. “Of course, my dear Cadence! You are already part of my crew, no?” She peered into the woman’s face. “Oh, there is a reason other than company for why you want to be with me, no?”
Cadence snapped her fingers. Think of it as reconnaissance. The Foxmans are lookin’ into countries with ports that’re close to Gemini. Ya know. Tryin’ ta find the kids… among other things.
That made well enough sense to Maria. She felt a bit sorry for the children. They had been swept away by another ELPIS Leader apparently just like Jericho had. That wasn’t forgivable, was it? If Cadence and Lita belonged to her and if those children belonged to Cadence and were friends of Lita, then wouldn’t that mean those ELPIS Leaders had stolen from her? Ah, that was something the Beast would definitely not allow.
“Say, dear,” Maria called out to the driver of the v-ehicle in Common, “have you heard of the tale of the Golden Beast?”
“Everyone knows the story of the Golden Beast!” the driver called back. “That urban legend, isn’t it?”
Maria beamed at this, while Cadence tipped her hat with a wink. Maria pressed, “The undefeated, insatiable beast that devours everything that moves, yes—”
“I wouldn’t say ‘undefeated,’” the driver replied with a dry laugh.
Maria blinked and exchanged a look with Cadence who shrugged.
“There’s a continuation of that story now, didn’t you hear?” the driver continued. “The Golden Beast gets too greedy one day or something—I don’t remember the story completely—and battles a great white sea serpent and ends up being swallowed completely whole. The end.”
Maria tilted her head. “That is not how it goes…”
“That’s how that young lady told it to me the other night.”
Maria’s thought was cut off as she spotted the mini-diner that she’d set as the finish line up ahead. It was a small building squeezed in-between two other taller ones. Its walls were white with beige borders that were loosely dusted with veins of moss and crawling ivy. Batwing doors were guarding its main entrance and a handful of occupied round wooden tables dotting its front terrace.
Just as the v-ehicle pulled past the diner, she hopped off of it and onto the road with Lita on her back. Morandi followed suit, stumbling to a stop beside her as he caught his breath.
“Ya know, you could always ask for the drivers ta stop for ya,” Cadence said as she took in the surrounding area then glanced back at the distancing v-ehicle. “Speakin’ of the driver, are ya thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’? ‘Young lady’ and ‘great white snake,’ plus that new addition ta the story?”
“Yes, we are close!” Maria laughed loudly and slapped Morandi across the back. She entered the diner a moment later and purchased twelve churros topped with strawberries on paper plates. She handed the first one that was ready to Lita, the second to Morandi, and began devouring the third herself. Balancing the rest of the churros on her head, she exited the diner with the two and nibbled on her meal as she enjoyed the morning rays.
It was ten minutes later that the adolescents, Giorgio, and Simon arrived in front of the diner. Half of them doubled over panting at arrival, while the others curiously spied the top of Maria’s head.
Albatross glanced up at the tower of churros there and then grinned. He nodded, reaching up and over to take one from the top. “I like churros so I still win.”
Maria laughed loudly at this before leading them over behind the diner into a small brick alleyway where moss and weeds were growing up in-between the cobblestone ground. After handing out the plates to everyone, she began to lick the churro clean and enjoy her company.
Cadence, whose image was leaning up against the alley wall beside her, occasionally made comments comparing Geminian and Leonian cuisine. She said something about how Geminian food had more finesse than the other, but Maria thought there was no point in comparing them. Each was wonderfully unique on its own. In fact, she had recently been thinking about traveling beyond Signum again after some time so she could taste and see the other flavors out there. It had been over a year since she’d last left this continent, after all.
Just as Maria popped the last bit of her churro into her mouth, Albatross abruptly paced over to her, glanced at her, and then at Lita. He tapped on Lita’s shoulder and cleared his throat.
“There’s some better shade down the alley,” he said, nodding off to the end of the alleyway with a wall encrusted with vines. There was a wooden stool set against the corner. “Do you want to sit with me over there?”
Lita’s eyes narrowed a bit, then she lifted her chin and nodded. She extended a hand, which Albatross accepted, and followed him as he led her to that shaded corner. She was guided down onto the stool, while Albatross leaned against the wall beside her.
“Well, look at that. So Lita and Albatross, huh?” Cadence arched a brow and nudged Maria with an elbow. “So?”
What about them?
“Can’t ya feel the love in the air?”
Maria tilted her head. “Love?” It wasn’t a word she thought of or used often.
“Hey, ya never know, Sunshine. A maiden’s heart’s a delicate thing. Might just be your typical schoolyard crush type deal now, but give it some time and brewin’ and he’ll be sweepin’ her away. Or dreamin’ of it at least.”
Maria frowned. Lita wasn’t a dream to be conquered. No, definitely not. Lita was Lita.
“Chasin’ things keeps ya goin’, ya know?” Cadence’s eyes looked a bit tired and sad. “Ya just gotta make sure the end goal is good for ya. And the people around ya sometimes too. All shades of gray considered—”
You say strange things but you need to smile, Cadence, Maria thought. Sonrisa!
Cadence chortled and flashed one for her. “Francis must be rubbin’ off on me. Anyways—ya glad ta be home again?”
“Home?” Maria thought, then chuckled. “This is not home.”
“Home is on the ship,” Lita said as she returned to her side, leaving Albatross behind and staring after her.
“Home is on the water,” Giorgio noted from the wall across from her.
“There’s no such thing as home,” someone mumbled.
Simon began, “Home is—”
“—leave me alone! Let me go home!”
The children startled at the distant cry as did Giorgio, Simon, and Morandi. Maria popped her head out from the alleyway and peered down the road. A man and a woman wearing similar outfits stood around a man pressed up against the wall of the diner there.
Maria vaguely recognized the outfits they were wearing. Their shirts which were jet black with cuffed and collared necks were paired with black slacks. A gold sash hung from their shoulders and matched the color of the embroidery on their shirts. Dangling from their necks were pendants in the shame of a familiar symbol.
It was a Monadic fit, but these were not regular Monadic priests. No, they were much, much more amazing—not that her Simon was not amazing.
Espadas, Maria vaguely remembered from the distant past. Highly honored Leonian Monadic temple clergy. They were local to Leo, she recalled from Atienna’s trickling memories of flitting through pages of texts, although Aquarius and Cancer had something a bit similar.
It was quite a distant memory, but Maria could still recall her first time seeing an Espada herself years ago. She had been standing on the high steeple of her Monadic orphanage beneath the sangria sky as the dusk sun slid slowly behind the buildings in the distance. Conta had been just a step behind her, wringing the seawater from her clothes, while Maria had been waiting for the sun to dry her off instead.
A duo of Espadas, clothed in black embroidered with splashes of gold, came up the rocky cliff-face hill and spoke to the head Monadic priest inside the orphanage below them. Although Maria still couldn’t recall the head priest’s name or face, she could recall how quickly the Espada had scaled the wall to join her out of nowhere afterwards. It had taken her ten minutes to bring Conta and herself up here, while it had taken the Espada only ten seconds and he hadn’t even looked out of breath.
The Espada had studied both her and Conta before pulling out a notepad from his pocket and scribbling something out in Leonian for them. It had read something like—This year looks promising. You should be proud of yourselves.
“I am always proud of myself and Conta!” Maria had cheered.
The Espada did not return her cheer and wrote to them next, If you can’t become our golden star, then you can always become part of the night sky that lets our star burn the brightest.Like us.
Maria had responded to that with— “There isn’t anything I can’t become! Of course, I can become a golden star. I can become the night sky too!”
Maria waved the memory off with a smile and focused her gaze on the man who was being surrounded by the Espadas. The man was quite handsome and regal in a way that reminded her of Olive, despite the fact that he was dressed in a hospital gown. He had Cancerian fair hair and skin paired with Geminian dark eyes, dimples, and height.
Huh? Maria studied him further. Familiar—
“Saints—that’s Ambrose! Ambrose Campana!” Cadence gaped, hiding behind her. “Talk about a small world…”
Maria searched her—rather, Cadence’s—memory. Flashes of men and women in business suits and dresses crowding a small, hidden room beneath the surface of the Twin Cities came to her mind followed by a foggy recollection.
“That hair! You must be Cadence Morello!” Ambrose had exclaimed half a year ago, closing the distance between him and Cadence at the Campana-Romano family meeting. His voice had been comparable to Francis’s in melodic quality, albeit several octaves deeper.
Cadence had spread her arms wide open. “And you must be Ambrose Campana. Have ta admit. I’m a bit star-struck ta have the don’s son talkin’ ta me all friendly-like.”
Oh! Maria thought. Ambrose! The one who was linked to the people who had hurt and had taken all of her precious children here—including Lita. Something like that couldn’t be forgiven, could it? Just like Scorpio couldn’t be forgiven.
A warning was in order!
Maria pulled back slightly and looked Simon, Lita, Giorgio, Albatross, and the other adolescents in the eyes. She extended out a single hand, and all nodded in understanding. A second later, she hopped out of the alley onto the street and strolled on towards the Espadas and Ambrose.
“The tabloids’re sayin’ he found a secret lover in Leo, but I just assumed he was stretchin’ out a new line of family business,” Cadence whispered cautiously from beside her. Although she kept the edge out of her voice, her anxiousness was poignant. “Don’t do anythin’ too excitin’, Sunshine. Werner’s quiet now, but ya don’t want ta have him comin’ in with one of his lectures when he comes ‘round, do ya? That’ll just make Olive grumpy and then Jericho’ll—”
—but Maria was already standing in-between the two Espadas with her elbows resting on their shoulders. “Good morning!”
While the Espada to her right tensed, the Espada to her left turned to look at her. A man…? His skin was dark, his hair a short cut of black curls, his eyes a molten amber. He had quite delicate features and came to a height almost equal to Maria’s own. The other Espada was a woman whose dark hair was tied into a tight bun.
The male Espada made some odd hand signals to other female Espada who returned them before stepping back and nodding. The former Espada turned back to her, slowly drew out a leather-bound notebook from his pocket, and wrote down onto it with a pen. He flashed her it a second after. Written on its cream-colored pages was a question— Do you know this man?
“I know someone who does,” Maria replied. “I know a lot of people who do!” She placed a hand on her chin. “I don’t think he is a very nice man—no, I know he isn’t! He is Ambrose Campana—you’ve heard of him, yes? He’s—”
The Espada’s eyes widened, then narrowed.
Cadence’s ghostly hand drifted over her mouth. “‘Ey, slow down there, Sunshine! Don’t go divvyin’ up too much info! Information’s the best currency out here! Ya gotta analyze a situation before ya go jumpin’ in—”
The Espada scratched something down on his notepad again and flashed it to her. He tried to break into the Flores Monadic Temple here this morning.
Maria chuckled at the thought, and she could even hear Cadence snort beside her.
He’s unwell, the Espada continued to write. We will take him into custody for his crime and care for him until we find where he belongs.
Unwell…? Cadence ruffled the back of her head. “Guy’s in a damned hospital gown—eyes like he’s gone on a morrowheat trip. ‘Course he’s unwell. Guess he didn’t have too good a time with that mistress of his.” She snorted. “Fortuna’d be pleased.”
“I will talk to him before you take him,” Maria announced with a smile as she reached over and wrapped her fingers around the front of Ambrose’s scrubs.
The female Espada, who had stepped back until that moment, stepped forward and grabbed at Maria’s wrist. Maria, however, grabbed the Espada’s arm before it could finish in its course.
“There is a problem?” Maria inquired, still smiling.
“Saints, Maria. You’re amazin for smilin when gettin’ into this stuff, ya know?” Cadence sighed, hanging her head and then ruffling her hair. “Aight. Let me do the talkin—”
Before Cadence could squeeze any more words in, however, the amber-eyed Espada stepped between Maria and the other Espada and separated them with a push. He made more strange signs to the other Espada before turning back to Maria with a nod and gesturing towards Ambrose.
Suspicion bubbled in Maria’s stomach. She poked the amber-eyed Espada on his chest and asked, “And what is your name?”
The Espada scribbled in his notepad again before showing it to her. Andres.
Maria pointed at her face. “Maria.” She extended a hand. “You are the night sky that holds up the golden star, no? I like you!”
Andres stared at her without speaking before his arm abruptly jerked and his hand shot out to accept the gesture. Maria beamed at this—
“Not that you’re not the most charmin’—and strongest—thing ta walk this world, Sunshine,” Cadence drew slowly, “but it’s kinda weird that this guy’s just letting ya go talk ta Ambrose, ain’t it? You recognize him?”
You’re starting to worry too much like Werner! Maria thought back to her. Relax, my dear Cadence. You won’t lose me, because I will not lose you! You may not own me, but you are mine, yes?
Maria released Andres’s hand and turned to face Ambrose who was still back-pressed against the wall with wide eyes barely focused on her face.
“Now, my dear Ambrose.”
She took a step forward and leaned in close to the man so they were nose-to-nose.
“You may not know my face but I know your face. You may not know the children, but they know of you. You may not have been involved, but you were a bystander, no? Being a bystander is a show of weakness, no? Should I feel pity for you, dear? Or—”
She plucked the long, cold, cylindrical object that hung at her waist beside her usual scabbard and ran her thumb along a groove at its base. A blade of blinding gold light grew from its hilt and illuminated both of their cheeks. In the brightness, Maria could see a bead of sweat rolling down the man’s brow.
“I understand why Conductors find these things so fun,” Maria whispered. “But I want to reassure you, Ambrose, that this weapon is not what you should fear.”
“Leo.” Ambrose stared wide-eyed at her conductor before grabbing hold of her conductor-wielding hand with both of his.
What a strange reaction…!
Maria blinked at him curiously then pointed to her face. “Maria. I am the Golden Beast, yes? I was trying to finish my story about that before you interrupted me, dear. That is not very nice of you. If you don’t—”
Ambrose’s grip tightened as a wild light glinted in his eyes. “Leo!”
Maria peered into his face. “We are in the country Leo, yes…?”
“Aw, hell.” Cadence swore, and Maria could feel her peer in closer through their connection. “Did the guy bust his head in or somethin’? I’d like ta say somethin’ dramatic about karmic retribution, but I’m not feelin’ too inspired right now. And I don’t want ta kinda call some karmic saint on myself either.” She tensed. Wait… Apprehension flooded their connection. Try checking—
Before Cadence’s thought could finish, a stampede of footsteps resounded down the walkway. A pair of men dressed in tight business suits came tumbling down towards them. Maria side-stepped them smoothly as they floundered over to Ambrose and began to shake him hard.
“There you are, boss!” said one. “We were looking everywhere for you!”
The second one turned to Maria then to the two Espadas and began sizing them up. He reached out a hand to shove Andres back but somehow ended up flat on his back instead. He blinked in bewilderment before scrambling to his feet and grabbing Andres by the scruff. Andres fixated him with a blank stare in turn before glancing over the man’s shoulder towards Maria.
Best ta dip for now. Better for the kids that way. Keep this info in the back pocket for later.
Maria stayed to chuckle just a little longer and offered a loud clap at the amusing spectacle before slipping away to ease Cadence’s nerves.
* * *
Maria spent the rest of the day winding through town with her crew. There was only one more Monadic orphanage in this town that they had yet to stop by; and it rested white, tall, proud on top of a grassy cliff that oversaw the ports and ocean at the edge of town. A pair of brass bells guarded the top of the tower and glinted dully in the rosy sunlight.
“Say, Sunshine,” Cadence noted as Maria began to direct her crew up the winding dusted hill path towards the orphanage building. “Ain’t this the first orphanage ya should’ve checked here? I mean, ya know ya grew up in a cliff-side one, so all cliffy orphanages should be your first stop, shouldn’t they?”
“I like to save the best destinations for last!” Maria cheered before turning down to look at Lita. “Isn’t that right, my dear?”
Lita seemed to ponder this before murmuring, “If you don’t save the best for last, everything along the way will just disappoint you. That’s what Mr. Campana always said.”
At the mention of his name, Albatross and the other adolescents behind Maria visibly darkened. They were halfway up the hill now, so the sunlight made their displeasure especially noticeable. They couldn’t let it go, it seemed.
“It’s not about disappointment, yes!” Maria exclaimed a beat after. “It’s about the buildup, no?” She placed a hand on top of the girl’s head. “You should not answer questions about opinions with ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ or ‘they said,’ my dear. It should always be ‘I say’!”
Lita flushed then nodded. Albatross and the other adolescents nodded too. Giorgio didn’t seem to be paying attention at all, while Morandi merely looked tired. Simon smiled kindly, but his smile slipped from his face a second after as he stared at something behind Maria.
Maria looked forwards towards the orphanage again.
An oddly familiar white glowing fog was rolling down the slope ahead of them. Maria stopped short at the sight of it, then took several leaps forward as she noticed that the orphanage was completely consumed by it.
Mist? Ocean fog? But the sky above it was clear. While it was warm, it wasn’t too humid. How peculiar. No, how amazing—
Don’t investigate further without identifying what that substance is.
It was Werner! Maria realized, searching for his apparition. All she could see, however, were her crew and Cadence. A ‘low synchronization’ was what they called it? Yes.
“Lita, can you put your conductor on for me?” Maria asked, placing a hand on top of Lita’s head.
Lita nodded and pulled the device around her neck up over her eyes. A frown creased her features, and she took a step back and stared at the cloud. “It looks weird… it doesn’t flow up…. It’s not connected to anything. I think… It looks like a cloud of vitae. All white.”
“Can you see anything inside of it?” Maria pried curiously.
“You know I can’t see vitae flow well without touching things…” Lita mumbled before frowning deeper. “But… I can’t see anything inside of it at all, Maria. It’s just white…”
“Good job, my dear Lita!” Maria nodded at this and pushed the girl back slightly before extending a hand back to her crew. “You should head back to the ship! I will take it from here! But maybe send up Veles? He is interested in things like this, no?”
“But Maria—” Lita tried.
Albatross placed a hand on Lita’s shoulder and gave her a slight tug. “Let’s go, Lita.”
After a moment of hesitation, Lita followed him with the others down the hill. Simon and Morandi offered her lingering gazes before they nodded and headed down after the children.
With that taken care of, Maria paced forward, running right up to the edge of the white mist. She extended her fingertips towards the cloud—
“Sunshine!” Cadence snapped in alarm. “Don’t—”
—but a strong, cold force stopped her short before her fingers could make contact. After some thought, Maria decided not to resist it and inspected the mist further. It was almost like a wall with the way it didn’t spill over further down the slope, despite reaching from one side of the cliff to the other.
It looks super dense, came another thought that was not her own. That’s obviously not natural. Maybe… a Specialist?
He appeared fully before her, unsmiling and flushing like usual, before guiding her to pick up a stray stick on the ground and having her poke it into the wall of mist. When they pulled the stick out together, Maria gasped while Olive visibly paled. Cadence took a step back.
“If that’s not a sign ta skip outta here,” Cadence muttered, “then I don’t know what is.”
The portion of the stick that they had stuck into the mist had melted completely away.
I agree, came Werner’s faint voice. Retreat, Maria. You can investigate after this settles—
An icy wind abruptly hurtled up the slope, pushing back against the white mist in front of her and blowing it straight off the cliff. The orphanage and the road leading to it became instantly revealed to Maria. And—
—there was almost nothing left of anything. The grassy patches of green that had been hidden behind the mist were no longer there. In their place were curled up black, oozing, hair-like strands that were burned into the dirt. The orphanage in the distance had become a black skeleton of metal, now missing its proud white walls and tiled roofing. The twin bells that had graced its top now rolled slowly back and forth on what remained of its front steps—faintly, slowly chiming still.
Not a familiar sound.
Maria looked over her shoulder and spied Andres and the other Espada winding up the hill. They didn’t acknowledge her when they passed her by, despite her offering a wave. Instead, they pressed forwards towards the orphanage. Without much thought, Maria followed on after them while keeping Werner’s caution at the back of her head.
She entered the remains of the orphanage but couldn’t make much out of anything because there was almost nothing of it left. It felt more like she was standing in a small patch of metal trees than the remains of a building. A movement behind a pile of collapsed steel beams caught her eye in what remained of the building’s corner, however; and she moved on towards it to find a thin body buried beneath it.
Maria easily lifted the beams up and away. Beneath them, she discovered a trembling elder man dressed in a Monadic priest’s wear. When she leaned beside him, he flinched away. Maria paused at this before resting a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Are you alright, dear?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”
The priest relaxed slightly before shaking his head and swallowing. “They were fighting,” he stammered. “A woman and a man. White vitae—ELPIS. They were ELPIS. Saints—the children. The man took the children!”
ELPIS. Again. The same.
Maria’s heart skipped a beat. Distantly, she could feel something sour curl in her stomach. She pushed the feeling aside as a feverish excitement took hold of her. Could it possibly be…?
“Was it an old man with an eyepatch that took the children?” Maria pried with a smile, the gears in her head turning.
What…? Olive again. He was giving the priest a look of worried sympathy. That’s not the main point… We should get him some help.
The priest nodded slightly before shaking his head. “No, it was a young man. Saints, the children. I… I lost them all—”
Maria’s smile fell slightly. “Well, maybe you were too far away to see if he was old or not?”
“What? No, it was definitely a young man.” The priest wiped the sweat from his face before he startled. “The woman. The woman is still here, I think.” He pointed towards the skeletal remains of what Maria assumed had been the back door of the building. “She went that way!”
Maria leapt to her feet and darted outside through the archway. In the distance, she could see a small silhouette standing at the very edge of the cliff. At the sight of that figure, her heart skipped a beat; and she could hear the faint, ephemeral ringing of bells bleeding in from a distant memory.
If only she had Werner’s eyes, she thought, then she would be able to identify who it was standing there right away. This anticipation was exciting but uncomfortable.
Maria. You need to be cautious.
Maria nodded, not bothering to smile as she drew nearer to the figure. Soon, she was able to make out the figure’s features. It was a woman with familiar mousy brown hair and with a cloak draped over her shoulders. She was staring out towards the sea and didn’t turn at Maria’s slow approach. In the woman’s gloved left hand were the shattered, dripping remains of what appeared to be Francis’s proto-conductor. Her other hand appeared to be injured as it was dripping with blood.
Only when Maria was a meter or so behind the woman did the woman turn to face her.
Maria stopped short, taking in the woman’s soft and nostalgic features. She hasn’t changed much, Maria thought. Yes, she would always be— “Conta!”
Conta didn’t respond and instead threw the proto-conductor on the ground and extended her gloved hand out towards Maria. The blood that was dribbling from her other hand began to glow white and rise in collective white tendrils with their points directed at Maria.
Maria, still smiling, reached for the conductor at her waist. “Well, if you want to start things off this way, Conta, that’s okay with me! Then we can go back onto the ship, yes? Raul has been wanting you to taste his new soup all this time!”
Abruptly, Conta stared past Maria before lowering her gloved hand. The white tendrils faded away as she did so, causing Maria to hesitate. Without another word, Conta turned on her heels and jumped off the cliff. Maria was at the cliff’s edge a second after, legs poised to leap. Before she could take that final step, however—
Maria—! came alarmed shouts through the connection she shared with the other five as a ghostly pair of arms wrapped around her waist.
“—don’t!” finished a cry from behind as a warm pair of arms ensnared her waist and stopped her short.
When Maria turned and looked down, she spied Lita clinging to her tightly with eyes squeezed shut.
Lita trembled as she tightened her grip on Maria’s waist. “M-Maria, what are you doing?! This is the edge of the cliff, isn’t it? You’re not jumping, are you? M-Maria!”
Maria stared at her before glancing back down at the ocean drop, but she could not see Conta anywhere in those crashing blue waves.
“Sorry, Captain. Lita ran away suddenly…” Simon’s voice filtered out from behind her. “We couldn’t stop her…”
Upon turning to look over her shoulder once more, Maria spied him along with Giorgio, Morandi, Albatross, and the other children standing a step behind and staring at her with either awe, horror, confusion, or concern.
“Was that…” Simon whispered, then paused. “Was that Conta standing there a second ago?”
To answer this, Maria re-holstered her conductor, pointed to the ocean below, and laughed loudly—“The hunt begins!”
Sera Aliz, First Chairwoman of the Conductor & Vitae Research Department of Ophiuchus
Motto: Progress Brings Peace
The Espadas are conductor-wielding members of the Leonian Monadic clergy. They are to serve alongside Leonian Monadic priests and are to represent the ancestor Leo to the best of their abilities in their actions, spirit, and demeanor. Only those who have passed a series of arduous tests are able to serve in this honorable role. Among an Espada’s many duties, this one holds most importance: to protect and serve the children who have wandered their way into Monadism.– The Leonian Monadic Texts, Edited 1741