ELPIS Leader Gamma struggled with internal fracturing within ELPIS. The Saint Candidate of Taurus Wtorek Csilla left on a journey after being swayed by Scorpio. Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Wtorek Elizabeta participated in the preliminary elections for head chair of Ophiuchus which ended with Gabrielle garnering the most votes.
A dead father, a missing daughter, a mourning wife. Now the three…
The man formerly known as Wtorek Izsak pulled the trigger twice. Each bullet sent the body of the woman standing opposite of him staggering backwards. With the third bullet, the woman finally crumpled to her knees. With the fourth straight through her head, she fell forward onto the ground dead.
Gamma lowered his pistol as he cradled his abdomen. Although there was no pain, he could feel that the area was damp. It was the location from which he had conjured the pistol in his hands, after all. A worthy punishment for dirtying and utilizing vitae in such a vile way. There was no other choice, however. This was necessary, as was what he was about to do.
Gamma approached the woman’s corpse and peeled the white band off from her arm. He studied the nostalgic emblem printed on it before shoving it into his coat pocket. He then looked towards the object that she had been defending with her life. It rose tall and proud, like the pillars that had blossomed alongside the streets of his hometown of Kepicus. The thing that stood before him was, however, not a work of art like the pillars of the past. It was a monstrosity.
Its body was unnatural and metal, the ridges and plastic tubes running along its body—snake-like. It hummed with warmth and light that was kept trapped within the otherwise dark room by the high-ceiling and cement walls. The warmth and light were not the thing’s own, however. It was stealing it all from the small pool of vitae puddled at its feet.
Gamma knew that the vitae here was merely a small sliver of the larger pool growing in Taurus’s main capital city. It was diverted to this location by the newly implemented ley lines which Delta had done away with only a couple days prior. Regardless, it was a component of the syzygy that needed to be eliminated.
Scattered around the edge of the pool, being basked in the heat that emanated from it, were bodies. Some wore black-and-white suits—all devoid of white armbands. Others were in common dress wear, more in cloaks. The conductors in the latter group’s hands had once burned white. Entangled in all of their bodies were wires connected to a single, square, metal contraption resting on the edge of the ground before the pool.
As Gamma stared back up at the generator conductor, a pounding began at the back of his head and his vision blurred. The conductor generator before him shifted in appearance slightly, while the bodies scattering the floor disappeared. Beside him now stood a young boy with dark hair and half-moons beneath his dark green eyes. The boy was unnaturally pale and pallid, and a cloudiness seemed to weigh down his shoulders.
Gamma recognized this boy. The True Conductor whom he’d encountered in Aries. The prince of Aries. Remnants, he realized as the pounding in his head intensified. Lingering things left behind in the synapses of Wtorek Izsak’s brain after the man’s death.
He recalled Izsak bringing the Ariesian True Conductor before the grand rebuilt generator conductor in the depths of the royal palace of New Ram City a year ago. The purpose of Izsak’s actions back then were unknown to Gamma, but he still remembered Izsak’s parting words:
“Even if something is burnt to the ground, it still can be rebuilt as long as there’s at least one person willing to rebuild it… Let’s just say I recognize that look in your eye.”
As the words rattled at the back of his skull, Gamma pressed his fingers into his eyes until he saw stars. When he pulled his hand away, the mirage of the True Conductor disappeared. The corpses littering the ground reappeared. The generator conductor hummed in the quiet. The memory, ended.
As long as this memory bleeding didn’t interfere with his—their—purpose of preventing the syzygy and of retaining the cycle, then it was fine. If he ended up like Theta, however, then he would return himself to his resistor too.
Shaking the fading pain away, Gamma quickly approached the wires and metal box on the ground before finishing what he’d been doing before he’d been interrupted by the false peacekeepers. Wires connected, switches flipped, the explosive completed. He rose to a stand and picked up the carton of oil he’d set to the side of the contraption much earlier. He then began to pour the oil along the ground as he sauntered towards the back door of the room.
Upon pressing through the door with growing fatigue, he stepped outside the facility building and was greeted by the cries of men, women, and children as they ran out from small little houses lining the path beneath the dark sky. There were smoking dents in the buildings and bodies from the earlier skirmish littering the edges of the streets.
Gamma marched past them all, continuing to dollop the black along the ground. At one point an older woman grabbed him by the arm, sobbed something about finding her daughter, but released him and rain terror when seeing the white snake tattoo dripping down from his lower cheek.
Once the oil canister was empty and he was a far distance from the building, he tossed it aside and pulled a lighter from his pocket. There were still several people running around close to the conductor building, but there was no time to wait for this area to be cleared. More peacekeepers would come. He no longer had other members with him to fend them off nor did he have the stamina left.
The life of a few for the life of many. In the end, those who died here would return to the cycle. Those who were consumed by the syzygy would not. The path was clear.
Without hesitation, he threw the lighter down onto the beginning of the oil trail and watched as the flames spread along the black line he’d made. When the flame trail entered the building housing the generator conductor, he turned away from the scene. As he began to drag himself away, however, a sniffling whimper reached his ears above all the other cries. Despite his attempts to ignore the sound, he turned his head and locked eyes with a small figure shivering only a few meters away from the conductor-housing building.
“Get out of there,” Gamma whispered, turning to face the girl. “Get out..!”
Without quite understanding why—despite knowing that everything returned to the cycle—he stumbled forwards towards the girl as the memory of a conjured knife marked with Wtorek Izsak’s name and unceremoniously protruding from a young girl’s back flashed through his mind.
A familiar deep silence permeated through the area for a moment as he dashed on before a terrible whine and then a boom shook the ground. Gamma was thrown back by an intense heatwave that exploded out in a hellfire from the conductor building. He hit the ground with ringing ears as the faint cries of pain, horror, anguish resounded around him. The sounds were soon lost to the crackle of embers and battering smoke as fire blazed at the corners of his vision.
As Gamma stared up through the gray cloud towards the night sky, a small, but sharp light there caught his attention. A star.
His last thought was of them.
* * *
Gamma awoke to Lambda peering over him pensively. He was lying flat on the cold ground in a cavern that was dimly lit.
“Delta found you and dragged you here. I healed you without asking. I hope that’s okie-dokie,” Lambda explained, pulling away. “Minus 5 months for me. Minus 3 for you. Ah, also she couldn’t recover the other recruits that were with you so…”
“That’s fine.” Gamma rose to a sit and pressed his hand against his abdomen. Dry. His skin felt dry too—almost stretched thin, but this was not important to him.
He glanced around the area and registered grand white pillars rising from a stream of vitae in the distance. Above him enclosed the cavern wall with an opening just above the pillars. At the brush of cool wind against his neck, he turned his head and found Tau approaching him out from the darkness followed closely behind by a trio dressed in loose business suits.
At the sight of the trio, Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “Why did you bring them here, Tau?”
“Wha—” Tau paused, whipped around, ogled the trio standing there, and then snapped, “Damnit! I didn’t bring them here—they followed me!” He jabbed a finger at the three. “How many times have I said that we need to keep our professional, leadership, and personal lives strictly separate! Following me without my knowledge! That’s stalking! A misdemeanor—”
“Okay, boss.” One of the officers—a woman—continued to follow behind Tau with raised hands. “Calm down.”
These were former Geminian police officers who served in the Twin Cities beneath Victor Giustizia whom Tau had been initiated into. Tau had managed to convert them to their cause; however, even though they had joined the ranks, they—
“As I’ve said many times before, if they are truly with us,” Gamma said, speaking his thoughts aloud, “then they should have bleached their vitae.”
The three officers visibly paled.
Tau stopped his ranting and turned to study him. He pushed up his glasses. “We still need people who have unbleached vitae for infiltration operations, Gamma. I understand your feelings, but we need to adapt to the era. Now that those peacekeepers have that vitae-spectrophotometer—”
“‘Bleach their vitae, bleach their vitae, bleach their vitae,’” came an exasperated sigh from his left.
Gamma turned and registered Delta leaning against a table stacked with the Itero Recino board game. She was holding a thick book in her hands. In Common, the title read—Vitae & Conductors: Who is Using Who? by P.D. Oran. Sitting at the table was Iota who was inspecting the board game there pensively.
“Whatever for?” Delta continued. “Lower their energy level to contribute less to vitae conversion if they use their conductor? What’s the point if they conduct like how this era does it instead of the way we do it? It still has a higher conversion rate, doesn’t it? What’s the point of bleaching their vitae if we don’t end up storing their vitae in the first place? Don’t you think about these questions?”
The trio started to look uncomfortable, and Tau spared them an almost sympathetic look.
“That’s what you were so for, isn’t it, Gamma? Recruiting new members, bleaching their vitae, storing them in resistors.” Delta sighed. “Well, we can’t complete the process of storing newly bleached vitae until we have one of the others like Theta, Alpha, and Epsilon here because I certainly don’t remember how to do it anymore. But we can’t do that, can we? Theta and Alpha have absconded somewhere probably because we’re so… stagnant and conservative, and Epsilon—well—we don’t even know if Epsilon has returned to nothingness or if they’ve been initiated given the state of our resistors. Plus, Epsilon is… floppy.”
Tau stiffened and cleared his throat. “I actually have more unfortunate news, Gamma. I lost track of Beta in Leo. I think she may have lost Theta’s proto-conductor, so she doesn’t have a way to come back here fast.” He cleared his throat again. “There was… an encounter. I wasn’t close enough to see with who, but the conducting looked like Rho’s style. I have no idea what the damned hell they’re thinking.”
“So Rho is initiated and working against us now too?” Delta sighed. “At this point, with all of this in-fighting, wouldn’t it be best for us to just all return to our resistors and start fresh—”
“Enough, Delta.” Gamma then nodded at Tau. “Tau, forget Beta. She’ll either be continuing her pursuit of Alpha or will be returning here physically or via her resistor. Do your best to locate Alpha. They are not a string we can leave untied.”
“On that same topic, but slightly adjacent,” Delta interjected. “What about P.D. Oran?” She flipped through the pages of her book.
“What about him?” Tau pushed his glasses up his nose. “He was involved in that diabolic research down in Capricorn—of course, we have to consider his possible coercion, but still! That unethical application of vitae research? Absolutely vile—more than a felony! Manslaughter! Breaking the laws of the treaty that this continent treasures so damned much!”
Delta sighed again.
“We gave him temporary immunity since he had the information we needed, but what was the point if we weren’t able to extract all the information from him before—?!” He stomped his foot. “Damn it—Alpha, again! Don’t they understand law and order, step-by-step processes? What exactly do they think they’re doing—whisking Oran away like that? It’s up to abduction with him now—”
“How do we know Alpha didn’t outright kill Oran?” Iota interjected.
Tau took a deep breath and nodded. “Right. We don’t have much evidence that Alpha was the one who abducted Oran either. We can’t make baseless accusations…”
Iota arched his brow. “Alpha disappeared at the same time as Oran did and at the same time that our resistors started having these issues. What more evidence could you ask for? Regardless of the respect we hold for him—even for Theta—we have to address the ‘misdemeanors’ as is.”
“Oh dear. That’s not what I’m asking at all.” Delta tutted, waving the book in her hands. “I’m asking you all—how do you think Oran got a hold of all this information? Surely it can’t be the candidates teaching him all of this with it being labeled as our propaganda and all; and I’m hard-pressed to believe he developed these theories on his own. It brings a lot into question… doesn’t it? It’d be nice if we had access to Theta’s records…”
“Are you sure that’s not your pride talking, Delta? What makes you think he didn’t come to all of this on his own?” Iota pondered. “If you start looking down at the people in this era, you’ll end up no different from them one day—why are you looking at me like that?”
Gamma followed Iota’s gaze to the trio of Geminians standing behind Tau.
“It’s just… the Iota—the one before you…” one of the Geminians began. “It felt like y’thought the opposite. Lookin’ down at us and callin’ us sinners and trash and all that. Colorful vocabulary too. Would never talk to my mother with that mouth.”
“You argued with Tau a lot,” Lambda noted. “You guys played Itero Recino all the time.”
“As uncouth as they came.” Tau shook his head and crossed his arms. “I swear you gave me damned hypertension!”
“To be fair, you give yourself hypertension,” Delta noted.
“Really?” Iota arched a brow. “I meant about the previous initiation of myself… I’m sorry about that, Tau.”
Tau’s lips pressed thin. “Yes, well, I’m glad you’ve been initiated properly this time. You had me worried.”
“I would’ve much preferred to have been a woman again though,” Iota said after a beat, readjusting his bowtie. “It’s more comfortable, you know?”
“Worrying about things like that even now?” Delta sighed, shutting her book and tapping it against her cheek. “Does it really matter—”
“Wait, wait, wait—that’s not the damn point! You think one of us told Oran?!” Tau interjected, whipping to jab a finger at Delta. “You can’t just go around throwing damn slander like that! Stop stirring the damned pot!”
“Slander?” Delta chuckled. “Slander would be calling Gamma’s leadership and choices up until now poor—or would that actually be considered slander…?”
“Damnit, Delta, you have no damned respect!” Tau snapped. “You and Theta and Epsilon and all you other folks who buried your heads in your damn research and books back in the day! You think you can just come and try to usurp the person we chose to be leader! Rebellion, huh? Revolution, huh? It’s dissident! You—” He paused to cough and was immediately brought a glass of water from the Geminians.
Delta held up three fingers and began to lower them one-by-one as she rattled on: “Someone’s drained the vitae in our uninitiated resistors, Theta is working separately from us, and Alpha might be out there doing who knows what.” She sighed, lowering her hand and approaching Gamma. “We’ve operated separately before in the past, but we always knew what the other was doing. But now…? Can we stop the syzygy like this?”
“I said enough, Delta.” Gamma looked away from her and turned to address the others. “Now that we’ve dismantled the main ley lines and generator conductors in Taurus, we can better focus on eliminating True Conductors while Leo is distracted.”
Tau brought a hand to his chin in thought. “The only True Conductors we’re really certain of are the Ariesian prince, that Capricornian, and the suitcase peacekeeper. Maybe even that swindler is one of them given her proximity to Theta… and Theta’s… reluctance at doing away with True Conductors.”
“The Ariesian prince is a poor target, Gamma.” Delta peered at him. “In fact, any of the ones who the saint candidates know about already are poor targets—the prince especially, since Aries found her way into him” Her lips split into a wondering smile. “It’s fascinating how that could’ve happened, isn’t it?” She tapped the book against his chest. “What do you think, leader?”
“We’re not going after any of those True Conductors.” Gamma glanced down at her. “We’re going after the ones who have not been located by the candidates.”
“Are we actually going after them this time?” Delta wondered aloud. “Or do you think we’ll have another interruption.”
“We have three possible events to look into.” Gamma pulled away from her. “The first is Sagittarius’s royal succession, the second are the protests happening in Aquarius and Capricorn, the third is the Cancerian courts.”
“That doesn’t narrow the playing field by much, does it? Then again, you’ll always find a True Conductor or two snooping around places like that. And if we go ‘guns blazing’ as people of this era say it, I’m sure we’ll hit a target or two.” Delta hummed. “Well, which do we look into first, leader?”
The girl formerly known as Wtorek Csilla wiped the condensation from the train window and peered outside at the smudges of green and gray flitting by. She remembered the first time these locomotives were introduced to Signum in the early 1800s. As always, there had been a controversy about them—reluctance, acceptance, desire to maintain the status quo, desire for progress.
She and the others hadn’t interfered back then. They never did. They merely watched the cyclic developments that came with every new thing. Well, it was more accurate to say that they became tools to be used during the revolving turn of eras.
Csilla also remembered the first time she had ridden on a ‘train’ as Wtorek Csilla. She had been around three or four years old at the time and had clung to her parents’ legs begging to be taken on a train ride with them whenever they went off to work. Given that the Tragedy of Aries was rather fresh and recent, their reluctance at bringing her long outside was understandable. But in the end, Wtorek Izsak—her father—had given in. In a sense, at least. He had pretended to be a train himself, chugging along on all fours as she’d ridden on his back in their living room apartment. Her mother had acted as the train conductor with a “ticket please” as they travelled from room to room.
They had no way of knowing what the saint candidacy ceremony had entailed. If they had, they would’ve given up their Monadic lifestyle entirely. No, they would have gone to knock down the temples themselves. Csilla was certain of this. They were odd people, but they were good people.
Once the train reached her town of destination, Csilla battled her way across the train platform which was crowded with clamoring people trying to enter the train she’d just stepped off of. She bypassed them all and continued on the road leading outside of the small town. As she walked along the dirt path lined by rolling green fields, she thought of the few times she visited their hometown of Okör with her parents. They’d brought her to the tall flower fields that blossomed at the base of the bottom and had hand-plucked flowers to make her a crown.
Every so often Csilla was stopped by a group of people heading in the opposite direction. They’d tell her that it was dangerous up ahead, would urge her to turn back around, would offer her toys and candies in exchange for her following them back to the train station. A man in a v-ehicle even offered her a ride back. They were kind people like her parents.
Of course, there were others too—like the man who leered at her and tried to drag her away with him or the woman who tried to steal her backpack—the one that her father had gifted to her—when she was nine. Csilla easily dealt with them, however. A broken leg, a broken wrist, and a goodbye.
Eventually, after an hour or so of walking, Csilla reached the town that Scorpio had directed her towards. Rather, she reached what was left of it. The small town that had once possibly stood proud here was burnt down to cinders. This town of Elhaladón had been one of her favorites. She remembered seeing the first house built here by a traveling small family of three housed in a caravan. She’d even watched over them fondly for a short time.
And now it was nothing. Erased from the continent just like her father.
As Csilla continued through the black smoky remains of the town, she came across human-shaped dark lumps twisted in-between bits of melted metal and charred wood burned into the ground. Among the debris she also spied wrangled handles gripping barely recognizable melted conductors. Either peacekeepers or converted ELPIS members. People constantly led astray. Perhaps people without a home to return to. Perhaps that was how ELPIS leaders reeled them in.
Csilla eventually reached a clearing that was marked by a rickety brick wall. As she approached it, she registered a clearly recognizable human shape sitting against its body. It was a man draped in the remnants of a white cloak. There was a conductor gripped in his hands that was spilling out a white blade. It didn’t appear as if there was a snake tattoo on his body, although it was difficult to tell with the burns stretched thin across his skin.
When she came to his feet, the man looked up at her, gripped his conductor, then released it. He croaked in Taurusian, “A kid? What are you doing here…? You should leave…”
“Which one came here?” Taurus asked. “Which leader?”
The man immediately tensed, eyes wide. “Who are you?”
Instead of answering, Taurus placed a hand over a particularly nasty, blackening burn on his abdomen. Her hand glowed a dark russet as she touched the area and the color spilled onto the man’s skin.
The man winced and then let out a familiar sigh of relief. “Are you a saint?” he whimpered as he stared into her eyes.
“Which one came here?” she repeated. “Which leader?”
“It was Gamma, wasn’t it?”
The man’s eyes, which were now somewhat delirious with fatigue, widened slightly. Csilla felt her heart hammer.
“Do you know where they are? Or where they will be?” Her voice trembled despite herself. “Please. My father is with you. I need to see my father. You call him Gamma. I just want to see him.”
The man’s eyes widened even further, and he studied her face slowly. “Your father is Gamma? You… he had a photograph he kept with him. I recognize you from it.”
Csilla felt her heart tremble at this, but that in itself was pitiable. It most likely was a remnant of Wtorek Izsak left behind after his death.
“I can see the resemblance… He’s doing this for you, you know. For your future.” After a beat, the man relented—after all, in his eyes, she was just a young girl searching for her father: “The leaders don’t tell us much, but I overheard… they keep talking about this place called Lamendos.”
Lamendos? That was where they were hiding? That was what they had chosen as their fortress? How sad.
“I see. Thank you.”
The man grimaced. “It still hurts…”
“I understand, but unfortunately I am not a healer like my mother.”
Locking eyes with the man, Taurus clenched her hand into a fist, and it became lit a fire with dark russet light again. Without hesitation, she threw her fist into the area on his stomach that was still glowing with her vitae. Her fist slid through his body like a stone through water; and when she pulled her hand out from him, his eyes were staring ahead and nothing.
As Taurus pulled away and wrung her blood-stained hand, another whimper reached her ears. Upon turning, she spied a barely recognizable human figure poking out from beneath a toppled pile of brick, metal, and wood. Taurus approached the area and came to find a woman wheezing there.
The woman whimpered and groaned as she locked eyes with Taurus. “My daughter,” she croaked and gasped. “She… please… where…”
No, this was a survivor.
The woman coughed out blood and wheezed again. “Saints… it hurts….”
Taurus looked at the wooden beam protruding out from her back. Poor thing.
This was a victim.
Without another word, Taurus extended her vitae-coated leg and crushed the woman’s head beneath her foot.
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
The woman known as Wtorek Elizabeta sat in her office listening to the hum of the overhead v-lights. Her patient bed was empty, her cabinets full, her desk still littered with framed black-and-white photographs of better times. Taking the main stage on her desk, however, were not these photos but a thick manila folder containing all the running platforms of the head chairs.
Elizabeta wasn’t quite sure why Hårek had chosen her to be his vice-chair. During lunch one day a couple months ago, he had approached her and had thrown her the offer. She’d still been reeling about her husband at the time, so the man’s proposal had seemed insensitive. But after some thought, she’d decided it was best to keep things impersonal and professional. Her role as vice-chair for Hårek during the elections would surely prove beneficial to Gabrielle.
Elizabeta’s mind went to the countless bottles that she’d seen litter the woman’s island table whenever she had the time to stop by. She had pointedly addressed the issue as had Alice, but Gabrielle had just repeated the same things: It’s fine, I’m in control, it’s just one drink, I’m still doing my job aren’t I.
Elizabeta pushed aside the folder containing the platforms and picked up the photograph hidden beneath it. Captured in the photo were Izsak, herself, and Csilla sitting in a field of flowers. There was a crown of flowers threaded into Csilla’s curls, while the rest of her hair was tamed into twin braids. Izsak was smiling, Csilla was smiling, she was smiling.
It was a photo that Izsak had brought with him everywhere—not just when he was off on assignments. He brought it with him to sleep too, and she swore that she’d even seen him bring it with him to shower. When Elizabeta had asked him about it one night when they had been lying together preparing to sleep, he’d told her that he kept with him to remind him of ‘what really mattered—even if reality wasn’t so pretty.’ Elizabeta had smacked him for the comment.
After what happened to him in New Ram City, she’d thought she’d never see this photograph ever again. After all, it hadn’t been on him when he’d been arrested back then. And then suddenly Gabrielle had handed the photo over upon returning from Die Hauptstadt with Alice and Jericho. Apparently, the ELPIS leader named Theta had taken this from Izsak—Gamma—during a scuffle.
“What does this mean…?” she’d whispered to Gabrielle upon receiving it.
“I don’t know,” had been Gabrielle’s response.
But what did that mean? Gabrielle had told her only months earlier that Omicron had said that ‘Gamma had been correctly initiated’ which meant that Izsak was… dead.
Although Elizabeta had not accepted that response at the time, she had been on the verge of accepting it—but now… why? That woman… Gabrielle—why did she always swoop in the very last second and scatter tiny seeds of hope? Even though it was clear that Izsak’s fate was her fault? Dragging him—all of them—into this spider-webbing mess of ‘True Conductors’, ELPIS, saint candidates, vitae conversion—
Elizabeta pressed the photo to her forehead.
No, that was a childish thought. Bitter finger-pointing shouldn’t knock down years of friendship. If it weren’t for Gabrielle, she would have never met Izsak and had Csilla… both of whom were gone.
The terrible thing was that she was the only one left. If they weren’t here any longer, then why was she here? If they were going to go, she would’ve preferred them all to go together—
No. Csilla was still here—still out there somewhere. Elizabeta remembered coming home on that dreadful night to her empty apartment. There hadn’t even been a parting letter left behind, but Elizabeta knew that running away like this was something her daughter would do. Csilla had always run away and hid whenever she thought she’d done something wrong. It had been a habit that Izsak and Elizabeta herself had tried to address numerous times: “There’s nothing shameful about being wrong as long as you learn from it.”
If Csilla had just waited, then Elizabeta would’ve come to her, embraced her, would’ve been able to tell her that it didn’t matter. Saint candidacy, ELPIS, vitae-conversion—none of it. Csilla was all she had left. But the Assignment Department didn’t care, did they? There were too many missing people through Signum, and holding one search higher above the others was…
Elizabeta carefully folded the photo and placed it into her suit jacket pocket over her chest—right where Izsak had kept his. She then checked the clock ticking above her door. It was one of those new vitae-powered clocks that had become popular since the diplomatic convention in Capricorn. The quartet of numbers on his rectangular body flipped from 11:59 to 12:00.
After some thought, Elizabeta headed to Gabrielle’s department. Much to her surprise, when she knocked and opened the door to the woman’s office, she was greeted by a full island table. Ferris, Roberto, and Moraeni were sitting around the table which was now free of cluttered, empty wine bottles. Gabrielle sat at her desk with her legs kicked up. It was a look into the past—minus a couple of people.
“Good to see you, Elizabeta.” Gabrielle waved. “Thought I was going to have to send an actual invitation.”
“It looks like all of us had the same idea?” Ferris chuckled.
“Look at what’s happening.” Roberto gestured to Gabrielle. “Gotta celebrate, yeah?”
Ferris glanced over Elizabeta’s shoulder suddenly, and her expression brightened. Elizabeta turned to follow her gaze and registered a familiar woman standing by the threshold of the door.
“Oh is my partner not here?” slithered a voice from behind Alice. “Well, that’s fine. It’s more of an old-school reunion, isn’t it? We’re just missing Izsak now, really—oh, and Flannery too.”
Elizabeta tensed as Scorpio stepped out from behind Alice and entered the room. The man surveyed the area, gaze lingering on the empty island table before sweeping over the occupants. Cold sweat began to drip down Elizabeta’s neck as the man did so. It was difficult to explain, but a heavy ominousness emanated from every pore of the saint man’s body.
“Oh? Roberto? You’re here too? Not afraid that I’ve made you into an offshoot or planted a spore in you again?”
Roberto said nothing, remaining stiff.
Gabrielle detached herself from her desk, walked up behind Roberto, and placed a hand over his shoulder. “What do we owe the pleasure of your oh-so-mighty presence, Scorpio?”
Scorpio smiled, arms spread. “I’m here to congratulate you on your victory in the preliminaries. Besting Leo? Now that’s something to be proud of! Enough for you to temporarily stop pursuing your passions, ‘ey?” He pointed to the empty island table and then held out an object in his hand. A wine bottle. He paced over to the table and set it down.
“You voted for Gabrielle, didn’t you?” Alice pressed, studying him from behind. “And you selected me as your vice-chair knowing that I’d vote for Gabrielle too.”
“Well, yes, that’s what we agreed and promised to do years ago, isn’t it?” Scorpio stared at her for a moment. “I’m not one to break promises, dear Alice. Besides, Leo’s current state is just not good enough for me.”
Alice and Gabrielle exchanged looks across the room, most likely keeping note of Scorpio’s dislike.
After a beat, Gabrielle asked, “So do we get an answer for why you’re actually here, or do we get to live in suspense from now on?”
Scorpio seemed to think this over before he smiled. “Many people live in their state-of-the-art towers and look down at the clouds that conceal the people below, while others live on the ground and look upwards without even a roof over their heads. The ones who try to ascend and succeed start looking down at those who were in the same position as they were. The ones who occasionally try to extend a helping hand to those below are dragged down by the exact ones they’re helping or pushed down by the ones high up with them. Then, they begin the climb once again. It’s all a cycle of climbing and falling down the tower. Wealthy.” His smile faltered slightly. “That was the difference between me and Omar living that day.”
Elizabeta searched her memory for the familiar name. Omar, she recalled. Talib’s old childhood friend whom he’d mentioned from time to time. One of his reasons for joining Ophiuchus as a peacekeeper. For Scorpio to blatantly speak of something so personal… She glanced over at Alice but found that the woman’s expression was unreadable.
“All of you gathering around your radios now, your newspapers back then, and your orators even further back as you tuned into the events unfolding around you with excitement, shock, horror, sympathy. Pretending to be observers to a play even though you yourselves are the stars—whether it be a revolution, an election, a tragedy, a celebration.” Scorpio curled a lock of hair around his finger as he stared over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “What is your temporary happiness here under the weight of all those unchanging passions?”
Moraeni closed his eyes with a grimace.
“And that’s only one problem. Something that’s existed since the concept of ‘wealth,’ ‘occupation,’ and ‘money’ came into existence. If you can’t solve a basic problem like this, then what hope do you have to solve other, greater, less obvious problems—especially if even we couldn’t? That’s something you should agonize over when running for this position, Gabe.”
“Hey, just because you couldn’t do it doesn’t mean that others can’t.” Gabrielle shrugged with her usual manner of false and loose confidence. “I don’t mean it offensively, but that’s just the way it works.”
Scorpio smiled, unaffected. “If you do end up head chair, will you try bringing peace only to Signum? What about the continents outside of Signum? Are they not worthy of being saved?”
“Well, one thing at a time…”
“It’s very maddening if you think about it. The peace that you might be able to cultivate here will just be marred by the lack of peace from people outside of your sphere. All your efforts to change a very small thing amounting to nothing…” He hummed. “You know, I came very close to someone who pondered over this phrase a lot— ‘No matter how good your intentions, as soon as you start valuing one person or one group more than another, you automatically become a villain to the other party.’ It applies well here, doesn’t it? That’s not very peacekeeper-like, is it?”
“That’s a passage from a book by that Aquarian author Kovich, isn’t it?” Ferris murmured before tensing under Scorpio’s gaze. “Talib—you— kept saying that it was propaganda for the Organization…”
“Well, I was right in a sense. Kovich was the Saint Candidate of Aquarius back in the day,” Scorpio noted. “And still despite this knowledge being so readily available to you in books… my dear Werner, my dear partner, and all of you continue to struggle.”
“You’ve already told us similarly back in Die Hauptstadt,” Alice interjected, eyes narrowing. “What’s your reason for bringing it up again here? Are you seeking an answer from us?”
Alice Kingsley was not as aloof and distant as she often portrayed herself as, Elizabeta thought.
“The arrogance, Alice.” Scorpio tutted. “You think that I’m coming here for advice from you? You who failed Jericho and all of your other patients? You who even failed Shion Myosotis.”
Elizabeta recognized the name. Alice visibly stiffened as did Gabrielle.
“Shion…?” Ferris murmured.
“Shion was a peacekeeper who was a patient of Alice’s back in the day. Death by suicide or so they say.” Scorpio chuckled, before leaning down towards Ferris causing her to pale. “Are you possibly looking into Shion for Jericho, Ferris? All under the table? So under the table that you didn’t even mention it to Alice and Gabrielle here who would know of it?” He chuckled. “You don’t need to hide it from me. I don’t care. Well, I do care of course, but I’m all for your pursuit of knowledge and passion. Your fruitless pursuit of trivial things, on the other hand, is endearing to see.”
Ferris stammered, her expression twisted in a way that showed clear hurt—“Y-You talk down about us, but you’re not even giving us a chance.”
“Oh… Funny…” Scorpio pulled back away from her and briefly glanced at Moraeni, then at Gabrielle, then finally at Alice. “That’s exactly what I said before I was pushed in.”
Ferris’s hurt expression melded into one of pain and sympathy. Although Elizabeta felt similarly, she had enough years on her to know that sympathy towards an enemy—even if it was a former friend—was not something to stumble towards. It was dangerous. But as for family…?
“You had the time to speak with Jin before she pushed you into the reservoir?” Alice inquired stiffly, eyes narrowing. “Did you become this way when Jin pushed you or is there something else we aren’t seeing?”
Alice. Straightforward like always. To ridiculous proportions.
Scorpio stared at her before asking suddenly, “Do you know what the ‘free will clause’ is…? You pin all the blame on us ‘pulling the strings’ and ‘not giving you a chance.’ You don’t even have a clue what the syzygy is. It could be a fun festivity for all you know. Maybe it’s a fantastical party where we throw confetti and release white doves.”
“Helping a big-name government create a large reservoir through human-vitae experimentation and fueling political dissent and covering it up doesn’t seem like it’s leading to a fun festivity.” Gabrielle arched a brow. “But that could just be me.”
“Free. Will.” Scorpio extended a finger outwards. Out from his suit jacket slipped a gold-colored origami sheet that was outlined in dark blue light. It folded itself into a human shape before alighting on his finger. “The free will to wage as many wars as you’d like. The free will to obliterate family, friend, and foe with conductors or other weapons to your heart’s content. The free will to vaguely saunter your way to the syzygy—or accelerate your way towards your destination if we dip our toes in just slightly. A painstakingly slow descent.”
Elizabeta felt faint, but maintained her composure.
“You call it free will when you have a bunch of hostages stopping us from doing what we want?” Gabrielle chuckled. “Backwards, isn’t it? Why even keep us alive really?”
“Hostages.” Scorpio chuckled back, lowering his hand. The origami paper folded itself into a crane, and he directed it over to rest on Gabrielle’s desk. “You’re saying the lives of a few people are preventing you from saving the lives of everyone else?”
“The lives of everyone else…?” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed.
The Librish lilt was instantly recognizable.
Upon turning towards the doorway, Elizabeta found Flannery Caertas—no, Libra—standing there.
“What are you doing here, Libra?” Scorpio mocked a gasp. “Here to congratulate good ol’ Gabe too?”
“Congratulations, Gabe.” Libra flashed Gabrielle a smile as she entered the room. Once she made it over to Scorpio’s side, her smile slid from her face. “Y’talk too much, Scorpio.”
Scorpio ignored her, peering over her shoulder to stare at Elizabeta. “You, Elizabeta—one might think that you of all people would be the one who would be most willing to take risks since you don’t have anyone left, do you? All of them are gone. But the truth is you still have hope, right? Csilla’s out there wandering in—oh, maybe I shouldn’t say?”
In an instant, Elizabeta felt the cold heaviness that had been suffocating. She charged for the man and snarled, “What the hell did you do? If you’ve touched a hair on her head, I—”
Libra held out a halting hand towards her, immediately causing Elizabeta to falter. Elizabeta looked down at the saint candidate’s pale fingers as she recalled what Jericho had told her about the woman’s conducting ability. To break apart vitae particles with a mere touch was an unearthly, frightening thing. It was quite literally an ability tailored to kill. Much like Jericho’s own ability.
“Scorpio, what did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Scorpio sighed, locking eyes with Elizabeta. “How many times do I need to repeat myself? You should be proud of the fact that it’s all you.” He nodded at Libra. “We’re all just poor animals on a leash.” Heturned back to Elizabeta. “I might not be able to point you to a specific direction like Jin, but I can help open the doors to your passion—there is a difference, you know.” He held out a hand to her, palm up.
Before Elizabeta could even consider taking it, Libra stepped in between them and grabbed Scorpio’s extended arm by the wrist. Scorpio smiled at this.
“Will you chase after Taurus who will surely make a mess of wherever she’s run off to, Libra? Or will you continue to stay here and watch me—me, who is merely, innocently acting as the eyes watching over our precious True Conductors? Me, who isn’t causing any harm at all?”
Libra’s eyes narrowed before she sighed and pulled him towards the doorway. She paused there, releasing Scorpio and then glancing back at Alice. Elizabeta could feel the tension between the three tightening the air. Bitterly, despite herself, she couldn’t help imagining if such tension would exist if she were able to come across Csilla and Gamma one more time.
With that, the two saint candidates exited the room.
Gabrielle walked over to the island table, popped open a wine bottle with a cork. “Celebratory drink, anyone?”
* * *
Near the end of the day, Wtorek Elizabeta found herself standing in front of an unfamiliar door in the cold halls of the Psychological Evaluations Department. She gave the door a solid knock before letting herself in. The room inside was dark with an occupied desk at the back. Alongside the left wall was a small table littered with odd game pieces, while the right wall was consumed with a large bulletin board cluttered with photos, articles, and red string.
“Good evening, Elizabeta,” Scorpio greeted her from the dark. “Are you here for a session or…?”
Elizabeta approached his desk and peered at him through the gloom. She let out a quiet sigh before throwing herself across the table and grabbing Scorpio by the scruff. She brought out the scalpel she’d slipped into her suit jacket and pressed it to his neck.
As expected, he laughed. “Oh, Elizabeta, you know something like that can’t hurt me. I’ll simply—”
“You might be able to pull yourself back together,” Elizabeta hissed. “But unlike ELPIS, you can still feel pain.”
“Oh, yes.” Scorpio shrugged. “The pains and aches of the centuries are still very much carved into my skin. The difference between us and them.”
“I can transmute you apart vitae particle by vitae particle if I wanted to. I don’t give a damn if you turn me into your mediums. I’ll torture you as much as you torture me.”
“But that’s not what you’re here for, is it?” Scorpio’s white grin appeared in the dark like a crescent moon. “Hurting me won’t bring your family back. I’m not even the one that broke your family apart. But what I am is the person who knows where Csilla’s gone off to. And what you are is a person here to pursue your passions.”