Cadence was comfortably living in hiding with the Foxman brothers and the Specialist children who had been used and abused by the Campanas. At least that was until two ELPIS Leaders Rho—who had the ability to excise acid-like vitae mist—and Nu entered the Twin Cities and whisked away the children. Only a couple days later, the same mist-like conducting was spotted by Maria in Leo along with a strange Ambrose Campana. What was left behind was only a message burned into the docks—‘Find me.’
Behind the scenes, the Foxmans and the Romanos are working on shipping out a product to Argo called chlorowheat—a mix between morrowheat and sorrowheat—under Francis’s nose. Cadence uncertainly keeps this secret under wraps herself. Francis, meanwhile, has uncovered a person who might have been associated with converting Jericho fully to ELPIS when he was younger—a mysterious person named ‘Alpha’.
As the dominos begin to become stacked haphazardly once again, Cadence…
The whole situation was a mess. As if the children running away and ELPIS being on the scene wasn’t bad enough, Francis had disappeared only two days after seeing that message of ‘find me’ burned into the ground at the docks. Took Pi with him too. Gave little to no explanation except—“This is a personal matter. I will handle this and find them myself” before disappearing with the wind. Not unexpected.
Of course, Francis’s apparent ‘resolution’ didn’t resolve the problem with the children at all. A couple days after they’d gone missing, Cadence caught sight of a familiar style of mist-like conducting from Maria’s end of things in Leo. It wasn’t difficult to connect two and two—as much as she’d wanted to deny it out of the fear of what it meant for the children and of the task on their hands. The two ELPIS Leaders at the Monadic temple, the words burned into the grounds at the docks, the missing kids here in the Twin Cities, the kidnapped orphans in that town in Leo, Mateo’s stammering words. Long story short, it looked like ELPIS was starting up its children-napping business again.
The mere thought of it curled Cadence’s stomach, and she was filled with an intense desire to find them, find them, find them and bring ELPIS to justice. These people could be the ones. The ones she’d been searching for. The final line.
Jericho’s intensity was so poignant that Cadence had to concentrate in order to not direct Jericho’s blunt style of ‘energy’ at the Foxmans and other executives. Still, she figured it was better for the detective to channel his anstiness through her than to bring it with him to work in the Serpens Establishment.
Behind all of that was the business issue. Not only had the children gone missing on that unsaintly day, but four of the main Foxman ships carrying Romano cargo—the chlorowheat—had disappeared at the same time. And “disappeared” in the city was equivalent to “stolen.” Not hard to connect those two points either.
Even with Francis MIA, Allen and Carl were still putting on a full-on search for the children no-stops. Francis still let the gates open for them and sent their lackeys wherever they asked. But visiting Comientzo, Leo turned up nothing. All evidence had been swept away or was hidden behind the ELPIS Department’s agents who were thoroughly sweeping the town.
The Romanos, on the other hand, were focused solely on locating their stolen goods. Allen and Carl were concerned about this bit too—Allen more than Carl. But it was still a tight situation since the Romanos had zero interest in the children.
As hard as the Romanos and Allen and Carl tried to cover up the entire issue, two days after the event, the ELPIS Department showed up. Made sense. The information broker Astante was connected to Cvetka who was paying out to Leona, after all. In about half a day, the city was swamped in suits. Fortunately, neither the Romanos nor the Foxmans had to go out and deal with them directly since they were still riding on the alibi that they were both out-of-town doing philanthropy and vacationing. Well, the exception was Ricardo who was on house-arrest, but he already had an Ophiuchian agent in his back pocket.
If it was back in the day, Cadence would’ve secretly preferred that the ELPIS Department deal with the issue. Now it just made her uneasy.
Needless to say, the business meetings between the Romanos and Foxmans weren’t the most stellar. Cadence herself had the pleasure of attending a couple of the meetings—all of which were housed in another one of Francis’s exitless rooms.
“Frankly, Cadence, I still don’t fully understand this True Conductor, saint candidate, and ELPIS business,” Fortuna had said at one of those first meetings with crossed arms. “But your explanation for why you wanted us to go into hiding was much better than Francis’s—I’ll give you that.”
That was a whole episode that Cadence had missed when she’d been down for the count in the events leading up to the Week of Blindness. Apparently, Francis had teleported into the houses of all the Romano and Foxman executives after having an unpleasant encounter with Scorpio while visiting her to check on her condition. He’d come into their houses with vague explanations and had whisked them away to one of his rooms. For his efforts, he earned a full-on slap across the face from Fortuna whom he’d pulled straight out of the shower.
Unsurprisingly the word was that the Romanos and Foxmans had showed little concern about the revelations of saint candidates, Scorpio, and vitae conversion. They were still Twin Cities denizens. As long as it didn’t affect business, it didn’t matter.
“My lack of understanding aside,” Fortuna had continued her point in that day, “from what I can see, you’re conducting and your connection provides you with a lot of resources at your disposal. Shouldn’t you be doing more with them than what you’re doing with them now?”
Cadence hadn’t been able to disagree with the fact. She had a bright and sly advisor and a sharp peacekeeper with connections at her disposal. Thing was that they were all out dealing with their own problems and had dipped in many times with her already. In other words, they’d already done so much for her.
Fortuna had always been demanding though, so Cadence hadn’t taken her accusations too much to heart. After all, Fortuna kept demanding to see Francis. Apparently, the old man Romano wanted to see him. Allen and Carl had been tiptoeing around the subject—with Cadence’s own help, obviously—but Fortuna was persistent.
“Which one does the old man want ta talk ta anyways?” Cadence had asked one day casually, jokingly. “Theta or Francis?”
“He didn’t specify,” had been Fortuna’s disinterested response.
Each day ticking on—Cadence knew—was just decreasing their chances of finding the kids. And their product—as Fortuna kept reiterating.
* * *
Francis finally returned to the main exitless room with Pi a couple days after the incident. He stepped in all casual-like just as Cadence was tucking Mateo into bed for the night. The kid had been having a hard time sleeping since the incident—would always make excuses to stay up longer. Probably felt lonely without the other kids around him. Cadence understood the sentiment from her time disconnected from the others in Capricorn.
As soon as one of the black-painted doors began to glow, Carl and Allen who were both smoking at the dining room table immediately shot up to a stand. Francis and Pi entered casually a second latter.
“Dammit, Francis!” Carl snapped, throwing down his cigarette and storming over. He grabbed Francis’s collar and shook him. “Where the hell have you been?”
Pi looked between them nervously.
Francis stared. “I said it was a personal—”
“If it’s a personal thing, then you damned better well at least tell us where the hell you’re going!”
“Francis is an adult,” Allen interjected thickly. “He can go wherever he pleases. He doesn’t need permission—”
“Yeah, you keep on sayin’ that but you know what happened the last time we left things alone?” Carl snarled, grimacing at Allen behind him. “Both Cadence and Francis lost their heads and the entire city nearly damn sank! And I’m not even talkin’ about damn permission! I’m talkin’ about—”
Cadence jogged over to them, arms spread. She placed a hand on Carl’s shoulder, then one on Francis’s. “Hey, hey, welcome back, Francis. Ya kept us on our toes, ya know that? A real magician there. Thought ya’d been spirited away too.”
Francis stared at her for a moment. “Oh, I apologize. You’re right. I should have been more thorough in my explanation. It was not my intention to worry you.” He glanced at Carl. “I’m sorry, Carl. Honest.”
Carl released him and mumbled, “Yeah, well, did your ‘personal matter’ get you any leads?”
“I was unable to find the one who I believe took them,” Francis admitted, straightening his suit jacket. “It appears as if they are very aware of where my gates are placed and have been actively avoiding them.”
“Gamma?” Cadence wondered tentatively. “It’s Gamma, ain’t it? Ya disappeared right before I could get the details in, but Maria spotted Beta in Comientzo, Leo. There was a white vitae mist there too. Assumed it was from the same gal ELPIS leader who tried to take Mateo away.”
“Maria…?” Carl looked between them. “Wait that looney pirate? The ‘adventurer’? You’ve got that mind link to her?”
“The one that beat ya in that arm wrestle?” Cadence offered him an innocent smile. “What? I didn’t tell ya—”
“I see… That is troubling…” Francis reached into his pocket, pulled out a v-cig, took a drag. After a moment, he shook his head. “No, if Gamma were to recruit people, he would select older individuals as they are more physically capable…” He trailed off. “I know for certain he hasn’t opened up a gate here. I haven’t heard his voice from beyond my gates in Taurus. But if it is the case that Beta was on the scene, then perhaps…”
“‘Perhaps’…?” Carl pressed. When he received no response, he jerked his chin at Pi. “Spill it.”
“Alpha,” Pi provided after a beat, grimacing. “Him. Maybe. Different…”
Alpha. The one who Francis had said was initiated during the period of the previous Theta. A possible target. A perpetrator.
Cadence winced as a sharp pain pricked her temple and a simmering heat boiled inside her chest. The room spun with the intensity; and when she managed to subtly right herself, she registered Jericho flickering out of the corner of her eyes. His fists were balled, his expression stony, his eyes flickering with light. In the distance, she could see that he had just risen from his chair in his cubicle in the ELPIS Department of the Serpens Establishment.
Easy detective, Cadence assuaged. Hypertension’s not gonna do me any good here.
Jericho blinked and looked back at her before the stoniness fell from his face. I am sorry, Cadence. He stiffened, exited his cubicle, headed down the white halls. I am on my way—
What?! No, no, no! Cadence urged. Scorpio will see ya! You could get yourself in danger! If they follow ya, they’ll find everyone here!
Damnit—where was Werner? Cadence knew it was deep into the night since Olive, Maria, and Atienna had turned out for sleep earlier, but was Werner asleep already too?
Werner—an idea popped into Cadence’s head. It was a bit cruel; and she hated to twist the detective like this, but this time around she wasn’t doing it for herself.
What would Werner think if ya did this, detective?
Jericho stopped short, causing one of the peacekeepers walking behind him to nearly crash right into him.
You don’t Werner ta get upset, do ya?
Jericho turned back to look at her.
Damn, Cadence felt guilty. But she had to do it. Do ya, detective?
Jericho looked down at his feet. “No. I don’t want Werner to be upset…”
Cadence cuffed him on the shoulder. Ya can synchronize in with me when I get into the nitty-gritty details whenever you want, alright? We don’t even know if this Alpha is your guy.
But your body. You feel pain. You are physically weak. If you—
Cadence bowed her head and sighed. Ya can throw a couple compliments in there too, ya know—
You have nice freckles.
Cadence chortled and patted him on the shoulder again. Just stay put, detective. I’ll do all the investigatin’ and searchin’ for ya and after we find ‘im then—
“Are you alright, Cadence?”
Cadence returned to her surroundings and found Francis peering into her face with concern. Still weird seeing worry so clear-cut there. Or maybe it was weird that everyone else was hiding behind a facade all the time in here and out there. Jericho and Maria were always saying whatever was on their minds and the kid wore his heart on his sleeve. Was that naivety or wisdom? Too philosophical for her.
“Is it Jericho?” Francis pressed.
Cadence paused. “Nah, I’m good, Francis. We’re all good here.” She waved him off. “So Alpha?”
Francis confirmed, “Yes, it would seem as if Alpha is the perpetrator. Or it may be someone acting as him…”
“Alpha. Another new ELPIS leader,” Allen noted. “What’re the details? Sounds like he’s cut from a different cloth by the way you’re talking about him.”
“It’s difficult to say how he is now,” Francis replied, “but in the past when I was Vega—”
“In the past?”
“—although we would not speak often, they would sometimes send me riddles to solve during periods of… vacation between research you could say. I would send them a riddle in turn. It was a way to pass time. We’d initiate a round of the game by writing ‘find me’ to each other. I’m basing my conclusion off of this.”
Carl leered. “What? Exhangin’ riddles? So you’re saying Theta was a player?”
Francis sent out a well-aimed glare before his expression fell. He murmured, “Don’t be childish, Carl. It was nothing like that. My heart has always been and always will be for Omicron and Omicron alone.”
Damn it, Carl. Cadence resisted physically wincing as a familiar gloom crept over Francis’s shoulder.
Francis lifted his head before she could say anything to break the tension. “You’re going to meet with the other crime executives, aren’t you? I’ve heard you request to visit the room where you usually all meet. Are they assisting with finding the children too? I suppose that confirms that things truly do change.” He smiled slightly.
Cadence reflected the smile at him and shrugged.
Francis nodded. “Right. Then, I’ll join you.”
There was a beat of silence.
Francis seemed to finally read the atmosphere, and his eyes narrowed with suspicion. “You mention it frequently, Allen. Am I not also a business partner?” He glanced at Carl, then Cadence. “Are we not a family?”
* * *
“Well, look who’s back from the damned dead.” Caporegime Bendetto barked a loud laugh as soon as Cadence stepped into the meeting room from the gate behind Carl and Allen with Francis at her side.
Bendetto sat at his usual spot on the mahogany circular table at the center of the v-lit room. To his right sat Caporegime Agape Rosario and to his right sat Romano family heir Fortuna Romano herself. Cavallo, the white knight of the Romanos, was seated to her right. There were no other executives present.
Allen and Carl immediately seated themselves across from the Romanos as they usually did while Francis lingered with a clear-cut expression of judgement. Cadence nudged Francis towards his seat until he finally moved for it and sat down. Then she moved to her own seat to Francis’s left. She didn’t sit in it though. She never did. Instead, she leaned against the back frame and propped her elbows up. Bendetto took out a packet of v-cigs and passed it around. Everyone took and lit one for themselves—save for Cadence, of course.
“Worked your magic and con Francis back here, huh?” Bendetto’s chuckle rumbled through his chest as he took a drag.
Cavallo said calmly, “Ricardo’s been asking for you, Francis.”
Francis stared at Fortuna then glanced at his brothers. “He’s been asking for me? Why?”
Fortuna opened her mouth, closed it. “I’ll discuss that with you later.”
Agape sighed, before peering at him from behind her half-moon glasses. “I personally would rather not have you or Cadence be anywhere near any of us. From what I understand, you’re walking magnets for the ELPIS Department and these ‘saint candidates’ that you keep talking about—”
“Agape,” Carl growled, “watch it—”
Francis interjected, “That’s a bold statement coming from a woman who profits from the misfortune of fellow women.”
Agape’s eyes narrowed. “And are you in any position to be making accusations like that?”
Francis held his ground but Cadence quickly kicked his foot from beneath the table.
He started and sent her an odd look before realization dawned on his face and he dipped his head. “I apologize for my rudeness, Miss Rosario. I didn’t mean to cross any lines. Your concerns are understandable, but I assure you that you’re perfectly safe inside these rooms.” He paused. “You have my gratitude for helping with the children.”
“The children…?” Agape paused, glancing at Allen and Carl and then at Cadence herself.
Cadence tensed, looking between them all as an uncomfortable knot formed in her stomach.
“Right,” Fortuna said thickly. “Since you’re here, I want answers. From what Cadence has told me, the ELPIS leaders that are involved are this ‘Rho’ and ‘Nu’, right? Are you aware of them? Would you happen to be able to tell us anything?”
Cadence felt some of the tension leave her shoulders but the stomach-twisting uncomfortableness remained.
“Jericho told you, is it?” Francis studied Cadence, then nodded. “Yes, those are the ones who were here. As surprising as it is for me to say this, I believe they may have split off from Gamma and may be working with Alpha.” He took a drag of his v-cig. “Alpha might be the guy we’re looking for.”
“Alpha,” Fortuna tried his name. “What exactly does this maybe-Alpha want? Why would he… take the children?”
“That I don’t know. I apologize for my lack of information.” Francis dipped his head. “I know Alpha would not harm the children… at least not in the way we are expecting… I believe our best option for now is to search Leo since that was where Rho’s conducting was seen last.”
“We already searched Leo,” Bendetto replied, rubbing his scarred chin. “Didn’t find anything.”
“You didn’t find anything because you didn’t know where to look,” Francis replied. “That is where I will assist you by going there myself—”
“What?” Carl snapped. “You keep spouting about us knockin’ on death’s door if we even think about setting foot outside of these rooms and now you’re sayin’ this bullshit? Well, if that’s the case—”
“No, you, Allen, and Fortuna should remain here,” Francis interjected tersely. “You are ‘normal.’ On the other hand, I…am with ELPIS… Please trust me on this.”
Carl grumbled and opened his mouth, but Allen took a drag of his v-cig and cut him off—“As long as you keep us updated.”
Francis glanced up to study Cadence. “And Cadence is a True Conductor, so…”
“Cadence, I believe your skill sets—not just your conducting—would be especially helpful with this. Would you mind coming with me?” Francis paused, then added, “This is not because I value your life any less than theirs. Your abilities are simply more… applicable and useful than theirs.”
Francis’s confirmation actually made Cadence’s chest warm a bit. It was kind of sad to admit it but it felt nice. Hearing his words out loud. Not second-rate completely.
“Hey…” Carl grumbled.
Still, Cadence tensed, an excuse to stay automatically riding on her lips. But then she thought of the kids and their off-their-rockers demands, thought of her brief whimsical dream of teaching them a piano lesson or two just like Alma had done for her, thought of Mateo curled up in his lonesome in his bed. Then she pictured Olive’s expression of disappointment and thought of Francis attempting to tackle the situation the alone. No time for hesitation.
“Didn’t need ta ask,” Cadence chirped. “I was waitin’ for an exit route outta this place ta show up.” She jerked her head slightly at Carl and Allen to indicate that she had a handle on it which seemed to calm Carl down considerably.
Carl reseated himself with a grimace.
Francis smiled at her before addressing the others, “I suggest you continue to extend your search to other areas. Although the possibility is slim, we might be able to find Alpha and the children that way as well. Trying is better than doing nothing.” He added after a beat, “Alpha is very clever and Scorpio’s offshoots could be anywhere. We must all take precaution.”
“We’re not dealin’ with another Scorpio bastard, are we?” Carl arched a brow, frowning. “The way you talk makes it sound like he’s playin’ games.”
“Oh no,” Francis replied. “Nothing can compare to Scorpio. Well, it’s more correct to say they are completely different altogether…” He trailed off.
—I am on my way.
Cadence jolted at the sudden thought but smoothed the action out with a stretch. She reached out in the direction of the thought and found Jericho—who was no longer in the Serpens Establishment. Instead, he was off-boarding a train at a rest stop halfway between the establishment and the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs. The distant light from the reservoirs painted the night sky in odd shades of greens, pinks, and yellows and cast soft shadows across Jericho’s stony yet determined face.
What in the world are you doin’, detective?! Cadence reached out for him and tried to hold him back as he entered the thick of woods behind the station. Much like how it went with Maria, her attempt to override him resulted in her drowning in a dizzying array of his thoughts mingled in together with faded memories—a burning summer sun. The course sand. The sound of tent flaps billowing in the wind—
I am almost there, Jericho thought. Away from Scorpio’s eyes. I can go through Francis’s gate. Alpha—
Wait, wait, wait, what would Werner think? Cadence shook off his thoughts. You said ya didn’t want to upset Werner, didn’t ya?
Werner would approve. Jericho pressed forward determined, obviously not deterred by the branches scratching at his face. Cost-benefit analysis. I can help. More benefit.
That’s not how it works—
Jericho stopped short in a small clearing guarded by a thicket of thorny brambles. I am at the location. He set down his suitcase and popped it open before pulling out Theta’s proto-conductor which was tucked away in a hidden compartment inside. He spurted out the black liquid onto the forest floor before tapping the tip of it against the spot.
Francis abruptly rose from his feet and paced over to the black-painted wall at the back of the room.
“Francis, wait a minute—” Cadence urged as she whipped around and thought, Detective, don’t—
But it was too late. Francis opened his gate, and Jericho stepped on through. End of story.
Fortuna and the others immediately rose and backed away at Jericho’s sudden appearance. Jericho immediately offered a curt wave before extending his hand out despite the distance separating him and the others.
“Detective!” Cadence sighed in exasperation as she ran over to his side and gripped his arms. “What did I tell ya—”
“I was not followed. I know,” Jericho said quickly as if rehearsed—which Cadence knew for a fact that he did from the memories slowly trickling on down to her. “I changed clothes on the train. I disintegrated my clothes. No mediums. I went alone. It is late. Everyone is asleep. I will be back before they find out. I am careful.”
“And who is this?” Cavallo asked calmly.
“You’re the peacekeeper from Warehouse 13,” Fortuna drew slowly. “I recognize you…” She glanced at Cadence. “So this is your peacekeeping ‘medium,’ Cadence?”
“I am not a medium,” Jericho said quickly. “I am Jericho.”
“It was a good idea for you to come and very kind as well, Jericho,” Francis drew. “How have you been doing?”
Jericho brightened—for him, at least. Cadence could feel his mind rattling in its cage in search of an appropriate response, but in the end, all he offered was a thumbs up. “And how are you…?”
Francis blinked. “I’m troubled by the children and… Alpha, but I appreciate you asking.”
There was a stretch of silence.
Eh, the greeting could’ve gone smoother, Cadence thought. That aside, this was hardly the place for a conversation—
“—Cadence says that this is not the place for a conversation,” Jericho repeated her thoughts out loud.
Francis’s brows furrowed, and he glanced over Jericho’s shoulder to her.
Detective, ya gotta keep that stuff private. Cadence winced internally.
Francis chuckled. “Well, she is right.” His smile fell flat. “We need to move quickly…” He placed a hand on Jericho’s arm and gestured to him. “As I’ve said just now, this is Jericho—although it would be more proper for Cadence to introduce him.”
Well—Cadence thought—it looked like this was how they were rolling then. Werner wouldn’t be happy. That was for sure.
Fortuna glanced between Jericho, Francis, and Cadence. “So you’re all on the same page now?”
“We are aligned if that is what ‘being on the same page’ means.” Jericho nodded. “We are…” He dipped his head for a moment, locked eyes with Cadence. “Partners.”
Cadence studied Jericho’s blank expression.
“Jericho’s help’ll come especially in handy with the task at hand,” Francis agreed.
At Francis’s attention, Jericho nodded almost enthusiastically. “I will help. From now on late at night. I am good with intuition.” He lifted his suitcase. “Without my conductor, I am also good.”
While Francis inclined his head at this, Agape and Bendetto exchange raised brows. Cavallo remained silent.
“You’re a peacekeeper,” Agape pressed, unconvinced.
“Yes, I am. We met once. I know you. Through Cadence too.”
Agape still looked unconvinced.
“I want to leave immediately, but I should be thorough in my explanation,” Francis interjected. “My plan is also to contact Gamma as well. I find him to be a potential ally in the long run.”
“An ally…?” Allen’s eyes narrowed. “He wants you dead.”
“He wants all of you dead!” Carl jabbed a finger at Francis, then at Cadence herself. “He wants all of us dead by the way you keep talkin’ about him. Use your head, Francis!”
Cadence sided with Carl on this personally. Izsak was dead, after all. Nothing in Gamma stopping him from putting a bullet into their heads but—
“Gamma has full knowledge of the syzygy as I’ve said previously. We not only must think about the past of the children and their present but also their future.” He took a drag. “If the syzygy happens, there will be no future.”
Cost-benefit analysis…? Gamma wasn’t much of a physical threat, but the other ELPIS leaders with him definitely were. Then again, she had Jericho at her side. Plus getting some information on whatever this syzygy was sounded comforting. Werner and Atienna would agree with it… right?
Allen took a long drag of his v-cig. “If you’re stuck on going yourself back to Leo, then take some of the men with you.”
“I will only take Maximallian with me. I will leave Pi with you,” Francis replied curtly. “Pi is more familiar with using my gates so he will be able to help all of the guys with making their way through them and covering ground—”
“I’m coming too.”
Cadence was yanked from her thoughts by Fortuna’s announcement.
“Fortuna…” Agape frowned.
“That’s unwise,” Cavallo agreed. “Given the developments in Signum, it’d be best if we sent the men out and laid low ourselves like we’ve been doing even with this.”
“I’m not satisfied by the work our men have done in locating… the children,” Fortuna argued calmly, “and I don’t hold as much faith in Francis or Cadence or this peacekeeper as Carl and Allen do. And—” She met Agape’s, Bendetto’s, Cavallo’s, Allen’s, Carl’s, and then Cadence’s own gazes—and she needed to look out for their product.
Why are they keeping it a secret? came Jericho suddenly. It is illegal. Francis should know—
—I get that, detective, but things are tense enough as it is. Let’s just find the kids first and we’ll deal with it after, alright? Ya can trust me, okay? I promise.
A pause. Okay…
Francis opened his mouth.
“I’m coming, Francis. This is final.”
Francis closed his mouth, seeming to dissect her quietly before providing a nod.
Cavallo took a drag and nodded. “You should take some men with you, Fortuna.”
Fortuna shook her head. “No, I agree that we should keep this investigation small. Any larger and we might draw suspicion.”
“Isn’t that foolishly dangerous?” Agape pressed.
Cadence knocked a knuckle against Jericho’s chest. “Trust me. With this guy around, we have nothin’ ta worry about.”
* * *
Their night trip to Leo was done on a particularly warm day. Francis had a gate located in the outskirts of Comientzo in an abandoned field spread with loose dirt and populated with rickety wooden beams. The night sky was clear, the air thin and mildly comfortable, the silence every-so-often spotted with the chirps of crickets. While Cadence and Jericho had slipped on transmutation rings and had disguised themselves as a middle-aged couple in Sunday morning wear, Fortuna, Francis, and Maximallian had to don proto-conducting rings to form the illusion of a young, rowdy-looking group of teenagers. A travelling family was their guise for now.
It took ten minutes for them to reach the edge of the town. Why Francis—well, Theta in this case—had never thought to put gates closer to Comientzo, Cadence didn’t know.
Cadence wasn’t too unused to walking long distances though. The Twin Cities was a network of spiderwebbing roads and streets. It took hours to reach certain parts of the city sometimes—built up decent leg muscle if you did it all in one shot, which Cadence rarely did. But walking long distances uphill and on rugged terrain with mosquitos biting at her arms and legs was not the same thing as that. It was hell.
Just as they reached the lip of Comientzo and neared the beginnings of the small brick town buildings, Cadence’s leg gave way and she staggered forwards. Jericho caught her, of course—what a guy—and peered at her with concern. When she thanked him, patted him on the shoulder, and pulled away, he continued to study her.
“I can carry you,” Jericho suggested, extending out his arms again.
Maximilian and Fortuna looked back at him with arched brows.
Cadence thought on it for a hard minute before waving him off. “Maybe later when my legs’re really fallin’ off.”
Jericho considered this before nodding. He looked over to Francis who was looking around the town pensively. Cadence could see the wheels in his head turning, so she clapped a hand on his back and thought, How ‘bout later, detective?
Cadence paced over to Francis with Jericho just a step behind. “So, where we headed, Francis? Kinda better we have an itinerary before we go guns blazin’, right?”
“We should visit the Monadic temples,” Francis said. “If Alpha left a message somewhere, it would be there.”
“Monadic temple, huh…?” Cadence drew, studying Francis’s face. She spied a bit of wistfulness there paired with moroseness. “Monadic temples popular back then too?”
“In a sense.” Francis didn’t elaborate. Never did.
After some debate, Maximilian was sent out to gather intel on the Monadic temples in the area. When he returned, he delivered the news that only about four of the twenty Monadic temples in the area were open for the night. Fortuna and Cadence suggested breaking-and-entering, but both Francis and Jericho shot down the idea. Good news was that the peacekeeping agents seemed to have turned in for the night. No dangerous close encounters hopefully.
Following all this came the debate of how to approach the temples—which shouldn’t have been much of a debate given the social skill distribution in their ring, but Cadence kept this thought to herself.
“I would prefer it for me to enter the temples myself,” Francis said, “although I am aware that my aficionado with and dealing with others isn’t as up to par as it used to be. Considering this, it would be sensible to defer.”
“I have practice with interrogation,” Jericho suggested.
“I’d rather be present myself,” Fortuna added.
“How about… you guys just… let me do the talkin’ okay?” Cadence interjected as she stepped between them all, smiling with spread arms. “Ya guys are great at the executive stuff and the plannin’ and whackin’, but I’m better with the common folk, don’t ya think? Bein’ a street rat and all—”
“You are not a rat, Cadence,” Jericho interjected quickly. “You are not a raccoon like Tau says either.”
Francis frowned. “Tau called you a raccoon…?”
“—You remind me of a cat. Cats are good.”
Cadence chortled at the ridiculousness of the conversation and the entire situation.
“This is no time to be laughing,” Fortuna said thickly. “We need to find—”
Cadence lifted her hands placatingly. “I get ya, Fortuna, I do. Look. Jericho here is like a literal phone-line linked ta me. He sees what I see, I hear what he hears. Just let me do the talkin’ and we can just communicate real-time through Jericho, aight? How about it?”
Jericho gave his signature thumbs-up as if that alone sealed the deal.
* * *
The first Monadic temple Cadence hit—which was one dedicated to Gemini—was filled to the brim with stuffed pews. Men, women, and children were squeezed tight together in the many rows, and Monadic priests were walking up and down them with Espada. Facing the twin statues was a kneeling Monadic priest.
Cadence wondered if they were all here because of what happened with Beta and the white vitae mist the other day. As she tiptoed down the central carpet to try to find a seat, the main priest’s chanting reached her ears—
“The first pillar of Monadism is to rise from the ashes of your mistakes as Aries did. The second pillar of Monadism is to fortify your heart with kindness and act as a fortress to those around you Taurus did—”
A sharp prick attacked Cadence’s temple.
The pews suddenly blurred into rows of short, wooden desks dotted with children probably no older than eight. They were scribbling away at the papers on their desks before abruptly snapping their attention to the shadowy silhouette standing in front of the chalkboard that had just appeared up ahead.
“The third pillar of Monadism is to reflect on your truest self and your wrongdoings,” the children suddenly began chanting in unison. “The fourth pillar of Monadism is to keep your heart open to others at all times.”
The children stopped speaking abruptly and snapped to look at Cadence.
Cadence stiffened and blinked.
She was standing back on the central carpet of the Monadic temple surrounded by filled pews of tired-looking people. A chill ran down her spine as she stared up at the towering statue of the twins up ahead.
Detective, did ya see—
Feels unnatural ta say it, but yeah—I think so. That hasn’t happened in a while.
Uncomfortable, Jericho agreed.
His confirmation was oddly comforting.
Shaking the memory off, Cadence sank into a small space in a pew to her left beside a young man who was pale and sweating. She glanced over at the priests and swallowed a sigh.
Didn’t look like she’d be able to get the priest alone and she didn’t have the time to wait around to speak with him. Still, she figured she’d squeeze out as much info as she could.
“Can’t believe this happened…” Cadence sighed quietly to the man beside her.
Why say that? Because people always liked to complain.
The man glanced at her and shook his head. “‘Hysteria’ is what they’re saying.”
Hysteria? About the mist incident? That was a bit dramatic for something so far off, wasn’t it? It had to be something else.
“Have you seen something?” the young man whispered.
Cadence looked away and mumbled. “I don’t want to talk about…” Not that she had any idea what he was talking about. She glanced at him pensively. “Unless you also…”
“I only saw flashes of white pillars. Others saw way more than me like people talking in tongues,” the man provided.
“I heard multiple people say that right before they started seeing things,” he continued, “a man approached them and started speaking in tongues or something too. I mean, more Espada are here now than normal and the ELPIS Department is here too. It can’t just be ‘mass hysteria’ like they’re saying, right?”
Cadence resisted doing a double-take.
‘Seeing things’? Speaking in tongues? That definitely sounded like mass hysteria. This was out of the blue. Almost too weird for even her to wrap her head around.
Cadence glanced past the man and spotted a woman eavesdropping on them. When their eyes locked, instead of looking away with embarrassment, the woman nodded sympathetically at her. And that meant that this guy didn’t have screws loose. Everyone here experienced something similar—visions and whatnot. How this linked to Alpha and the kids—Cadence had no idea. Maybe it had to do with a Specialist conducting or something? What in saint’s name was happening here?
After checking in with Jericho and finding that Jericho was not aware of any ELPIS Leader capable of giving people visions, she directed Jericho to ask Francis if he knew of something about it.
“No,” Francis said, “I’m not aware of anyone having any conducting ability like that.” He paused. “You must understand—most of our studies with vitae were for heuristic purposes.”
Jericho tensed, and Cadence could feel the simmering heat in his chest.
Fortuna crossed her arms. “We all think we’re saints, don’t we?”
After about five minutes or so of lingering, Cadence bid farewell to the man and his fellow vision-seeing peers and exited the temple before heading to the next one with the others.
At the second Monadic temple hailing Sagittarius, Cadence posed as a weary traveler in search of shelter and for a missing family member—hint: Alpha. The single Monadic priest present welcomed her warmly into the empty temple that was lit only by a single candle standing before a faceless white statue. The statue’s one hand was pointing directly up to the ceiling, and it was guarding the far back wall.
The priest listened to her ‘woes’ for quite some time but was reluctant to talk himself. He explained that he’d been shaken down by peacekeeping agents for information only a day prior. Damn bad luck. Eventually, he excused himself temporarily to continue his prayers.
Kneeling before the single candle, the priest began to chant faintly under his breath. Cadence moved to the front pews of the temple and seated herself as she tuned her ears—
“…. fifth pillar of Monadism is to achieve victory not only in the external world but also the internal world. Do not be defeated by past failures. The sixth pillar of Monadism is to strengthen your bonds with the world around you and to remember every person’s wish and dreams in your heart.”
As Cadence continued to idly listen, she reached out to Jericho. Back in Scorpio—were ya ever into the Monadism bit? Don’t think I’ve seen back that far that often.
There was a beat of silence, but Cadence knew she hadn’t pushed his buttons too far. After a moment, Jericho responded sounding somewhat uncertain—
No, we were not. We had something else. The prayer, I remember. The reason for the prayer, I don’t. But. It is a ‘comfort.’
A comfort, huh…? Cadence closed her eyes, thought of the children, then briefly of Alma. Mind teachin’ me the prayer sometime? I mean, I know how ta say it, but learnin’ how ta read it’d be nice.
Yes. That sounds ‘enjoyable.’
“…the seventh pillar of Monadism is to not turn your eyes away from justice and to be fair in every action you take,” the priest continued. “The eighth pillar of Monadism is to embrace your passions and pursue them to the fullest and help others pursue them as this is the life given to only you. The ninth pillar is to be calm and focused in the direction you are headed and offer direction to those who pass you by…”
After the priest was done, he joined Cadence by the pew and offered her a warm smile. If Cadence were any other person, she figured she’d probably feel bad about using the guy. But this was the way the world turned.
“I-I was just wondering…” Cadence wheezed, covering a fake cough with her elbow. “If you may have maybe seen the person I’m looking over—the one I mentioned earlier. It’s… complicated, but if you’ve seen anyone outta the ordinary…”
The priest’s face folded.
“Oh…” Cadence buried her head in her hands. “I can’t go asking you after what you’ve been through with the peacekeepers already… Oh, I’ll never find them…”
The priest put a hand on her back.
Hook. Like. Sinker.
“I can’t tell you names because that would be going against a person’s privacy,” the priest drew, “but I can tell you… There was a woman who stopped by here not too long ago.”
“A woman?” Cadence lifted her head.
“Yes, well, this is the temple for Sagittarius and the Saint Candidate of Direction. People who come here often seekdirection. She came here searching for a place to go. I believe she settled on either Unión or Treguoa—the towns, I mean. It was quite odd. She told a strange story while she was here too. It was about a golden beast and a great white snake…”
Yes, I think it is Conta. Intuition. She is headed there. Maria will like this—when she wakes up.
With that bit of information collected, Cadence thanked the priest and headed to the next temple.
The third temple—Cancerian—which hosted a statue of a figure with their hands clasped over their heart saw to the head priests trying to convert Cadence to Monadism. They went on-and-on about prestigious Monadic followers like a chairwoman of Ophiuchus and how the next Saint Candidate of Cancer was going to be announced soon.
Then they rattled about the pillars too—
“The tenth pillar is to unite to focus on a goal to perfect the world with those around you. The eleventh pillar is to submerge yourself in true understanding and reach the deepest depths of understanding of the world around you. The twelfth pillar is this: since the world turns in an endless repeating cycle, remember to do your best in the current cycle….”
Cadence exited out of this temple smoothly and quickly. Not much gained there.
As they approached the fourth Monadic temple, however, Francis walked right up to its pearly white pillars instead of dipping away with Fortuna and Maximallian like he normally did.
“I don’t believe it…” Francis whispered, running his hands along the grooves of the pillar. “This was a temple originally dedicated to Ophiuchus…”
Cadence stared. “Uh—Ophiuchus? Wait, the ancestor Ophiuchus?” Had there really been one? She’d always thought it was an old war rumor.
“Yes, there are very subtle differences in the architecture between the different temples. Ophiuchian Monadic temples have snake-like waves running up their pillars.” Francis pulled his hand away and inclined his head back at Jericho. “Do you see this, Jericho? There’s a slight difference in the designs of the pillars.”
Jericho walked to Francis’s side, leaned in. Cadence could hear him think—I see nothing. Still, he nodded. “Yes, I see. It looks very different, Francis.”
Cadence squinted at the man. She figured he was trying to play teacher’s pet. Not something she’d ever get annoyed at. In fact, if it was Jericho, it was even kind of endearing. But the concern was—
Jericho paused, turned, cocked his head at her. I am not a pet.
It’s another sayin’, detective. Just means ya like to please certain people.
Jericho considered this. Okay. Maybe I am.
You know that Francis ain’t—Cadence began before she registered Francis stomping up the steps to the doors of the temple. A warning shout was on her tongue, but it was too late. Francis had already thrown open the doors and was stepping inside.
Maximilian immediately scrambled inside after him, followed by Jericho. Cadence rubbed her hand down her face and wondered if this was how Werner felt daily. With that, she followed behind with Fortuna at her feet.
Adapt, adapt, adapt, as Alma always said.
A single Monadic priest—middle-aged and graying just slightly—occupied the temple room. He was standing in front of the back Leonian Monadic statue which was posed like all other Leonian Monadic statues Cadence had seen before—arms wide open.
Francis was at the priest’s side already and asking point-blank, “What is your name?”
The priest blinked, befuddled. “Er—uh—it’s Arthur Taylor—”
“I am Vega,” Francis interjected. “Vega—” He leaned in to whisper something into the priest’s ear.
The priest’s eyes widened as Francis pulled away. After a beat of staring, the priest murmured, “I didn’t think I’d find a fellow Ophiuchian here… I—My real name is Acastus Arcus.”
His words weren’t spoken in Leonian, Cadence realized. Not in Common either. It was Ophiuchian. Cadence recognized it because Jericho did.
“You are… Ophiuchian?” Jericho tried in the language.
“You’re Ophiuchian too?” Acastus returned before looking Jericho up and down. “No—you like you’re from Scorpio…”
“Yes,” Jericho provided without elaboration.
“Er—well. I’m one-third Ophiuchian,” Acastus explained. “My mother is from Aries. I had my name changed mid-war after we left Ophiuchus together.” He chuckled. “It’s good to be talking in this language again. It’s been so long—I’m rusty.”
“Do you know what happened to the other Ophiuchians?” Francis asked.
Cadence resisted wincing.
“Er… well, no… I heard they were taken in by Ophiuchus,” Acastus mumbled in confusion. He gestured to the statue behind him. “I was originally dedicated to the ancestor Ophiuchus, you know? I had to choose another saint after they removed Ophiuchian Monadic temples after the war. They practically erased the ancestor from history, but I still abide by the thirteenth pillar.”
“It’s almost as if it was done in punishment,” Francis muttered. “How foolish.”
Acastus nodded, then said, “The thirteenth pillar—bear the weight of the world and never crumble beneath the weight of it all. Not a bad one if I say so myself.”
There was another stretch of silence.
Cadence cleared her throat and approached the two apologetically. She drew in Ophiuchian in order to get on his good side, “Sorry about the sudden intrusion, Acastus. We’ve had a heck of a night. We actually swung by to ask some questions, so this is a pleasant surprise. Anyway, have ya seen anythin’ out of the ordinary recently?
“Another person who speaks it…” Acastus’s brows rose. “This is starting to become unsettling…” He looked them up and down suspiciously. “You’re not peacekeeping agents, are you? Why are you here? Who are you?”
“No way.” Cadence mimicked an expression of disgust. “We’re not peackeepin’ agents—definitely not.” She lied again easily, “We’re searchin’ for a family member of ours is all. They were vacationin’ here; and after everythin’ that’s been happening here, we started to get concerned and came up for a visit. Can’t find ‘em anywhere, so we’re askin’ around.”
Acastus relaxed slightly. “Oh, well… I’m very sorry to hear that.” He hummed. “Let’s see… aside from the ELPIS event… we were visited by a strange young man recently… maybe he’s the one you’re searching for?”
“Did he happen ta have an eyepatch over his eye or anythin’?” Cadence found herself asking.
“No, oddly enough, he was dressed in a hospital gown.”
A hospital gown…? Abruptly, Cadence found herself thinking of Ambrose.
“He merely said he was waiting for someone he’d met earlier—a ‘Leo’?” The man chuckled and gestured back to the statue. “Obviously not the ancestor Leo. But, he was adamant that they’d visit him—even more adamant than when he was pounding on the doors a weeks ago.” He chuckled. “I actually thought you were him when you blasted in here like that.”
Definitely sounded like Ambrose.
What was with all of these weird unconnected strings? Cadence wondered. Well, maybe they weren’t unconnected. As Werner always said, there was no such thing—
—as coincidence, Jericho finished, nodding. Intuition.
* * *
Half an hour later, they were winding their way out of town—exiting from the opposite way they came. Cadence had suggested this to make their journey by any eye-witnesses account seem less suspicious. Fortuna didn’t seem too happy with the information they’d gathered from the town, but Francis looked pleased—and concerned and gloomy.
They continued now along a dirt road flattened by v-ehicle transportation and lined with low, wooden fences and bushes. After five minutes or so, Francis abruptly stopped short and approached the left wooden fence. Beyond it was a steep drop of a cliff that fell to an odd field below. Little half-ovals and half-rectangles jutted out from the field’s meadowy ground. As Cadence neared Francis and squinted into the dark, she came to realize that it was a sea of graves.
“‘s creepy…” Maximilian muttered, peering down. “Probably from the war. Too many bodies, you know?”
Francis murmured, “Do you remember what I told you all earlier, Maximallian?”
“Uh, no, boss.”
“People mourn for the dead but the dead are the ones who are at peace and have left everything behind as they return to the cycle. We should have sympathy instead for the ones who cling still to those who have passed and found peace.”
A beat of silence.
“Desperately clinging to what remains of them and wishing them to return. We are selfish in our imaginations and our desires.”
Abruptly, Cadence found herself thinking of Alma.
“Although it’s ludicrous, I sometimes think that—”
Fortuna sighed, uncrossing her crossed arms. “What are you talking about, Francis? This is hardly the place and time. Unless there’s some hidden riddle with the information Cadence’s gathered so far, our coming here was useless.”
Cadence opened her mouth to rein the conversation in but paused as she was suddenly overcome with the desire to hear Francis finish.
“Not the time you say?” Francis’s lips pressed thin. “Perhaps not, but then when is a good time? All of these people who have laid their lives down for a cause they believed just, all of these children who died because of that just cause, all of these unmarked graves. Vitae stores memories and they say history remembers, but people never do.”
Cadence glanced at Jericho and found him staring intently at Francis.
“These people probably had died with the thought ‘never again’ in their heads,” he said. “But soon, if we’re not careful, the next generation will forget these things despite them being carved in stone. They will become insensitive to the pain of others and violence itself. They will mock those who are sensitive to it and call their actions ‘maturity.’ Perhaps it’s already even happening now. This is the cycle that Scorpio revels and agonizes in.”
Derik Stein flashed through Cadence’s mind and then a blurred image of Otto Vogt lying dying and bleeding on the muddy ground. Cadence startled at the last bit, but Jericho placed a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back into reality.
“It’s our responsibility—don’t you see? To prevent them from forgetting,” Francis continued. “I suppose I’m not the one to say such things… After all, forgetting to us is natural and—”
Cadence clapped a hand on Francis’s back, cutting him off short. She flashed him a smile.
She was abruptly jerked backwards by the back of her collar. She thought it was Jericho at first, until she was swiveled around and found herself staring at an older man with a long jaw. He looked a bit familiar—so did the thin, gaunt man standing behind him.
“Hey—you!” the man snarled in accented Common—clearly Geminian. “The hell were you doin’ at the Leonian Monadic temple so late at night, huh? You seen somethin’?”
Before Cadence could even make heads-or-tails of him, Jericho cracked his fist against the man’s face and sent him flying back into the gaunt man.
“Sorry. Reflex,” Jericho apologized. “But do not touch her without asking.”
Instead of saying anything, the two men looked Jericho in his burly disguise up and down before muttering to themselves, brushing themselves off, and pacing away back towards Comientzo.
“Those were Ambrose’s men,” Fortuna muttered, eyes narrowing. “I recognize them… What are they doing out so late at night? Were they following us or—”
A rustling from the bushes behind the fence to their right answered Fortuna. A head popped out a second after. A familiar one. Blonde and handsome. Following the head stumbled out the rest of the body. It was Ambrose Campana in the flesh and dressed in a hospital gown.
“Ambrose…?” Fortuna took in a breath. “What are you…?”
Ambrose stared at her and then past her towards Cadence.
Cadence stiffened before relaxing. Right. They were all still disguised. No way he’d know who they were. No getting into the frisky family rivalry business. Only bad call was Fortuna naming him, but Cadence was sure she could cover it up.
“Leo?” Ambrose took a step forward. “You saw Leo? You went to Leo—”
Without warning, Ambrose rushed at Cadence and slapped his hand over her lips. His hand was wet, and the liquid slipped into her mouth—warm, iron-like. Blood?
Ambrose lifted his hand—which was gloved—and placed it at Cadence’s temple without another word. There was a bright flash of white light from the direction and suddenly Cadence’s surroundings melted away into nothing, and she was left standing in the dark. The deep black around her burst open with a flash of white light—
—before she suddenly found herself sitting at a wooden desk in a white room that opened up to the seaside to her right.
An older, beautiful woman drifted into the room slowly, gracefully, like a ghost. Her hair was thick, long, and black, but perfectly straight and untangled. Her porcelain skin glowed in the sunlight streaming between the white pillars that ran parallel to Cadence’s left and right.
“Mnemos, are you finished yet?” the woman asked, voice quiet and milky.
“I am trying, Vega,” Cadence found herself saying, “but the vitae particles aren’t behaving!”
Vega? Cadence thought as she studied the woman. That definitely wasn’t Francis. Wasn’t the Theta from Jericho’s memories either. Vega…?
“You’re a ridiculous person, Mnemos,” woman—Vega—continued, “speaking of vitae particles as if they can ‘behave’ like children.”
“Come on, darling,” rang a voice from behind Vega, mellow and almost baritone. “You should give Mnemos a break every once in a while. They’re already being pushed around by—”
The person was cut off as another entered the room from between the pillars. A man. He was practically golden. His hair was gold, his eyes were amber, his skin seemingly tanned because of being bathed in constant golden sunlight.
Vega and the person behind her immediately bowed deeply as did Cadence herself—moved by an unseen force.
“Leo, you’re here so soon—”
Leo approached Vega and the other person and straightened them with a chuckle. “Please don’t. It was only a moment ago that you were my teachers and I was bowing to you—”
Cadence gasped as the world around her spun into blackness and ringing resounded in her ears. When light returned, the pillars were gone, Vega was gone, Leo was gone. Instead, it was Jericho who hovered only a centimeter or so away from her face. He was searching her eyes desperately while tightly gripping his suitcase. On the ground at her feet lay Ambrose, cradling his swelling cheek. Maximilian was on top of him and pinning him to the ground with a knee.
Cadence figured Jericho must have smacked Ambrose right off of her with his suitcase during whatever the hell just happened—
“Cadence.” Jericho shook her roughly. “Cadence. Are you okay? Are you hurt. You feel functional—”
“Saints, Jericho! Yes, I’m fine,” Cadence snapped, grabbing his arms and forcing him to a stop. “It’s all good, detective…”
She stared past him at Francis who was studying Ambrose blankly. He then slowly pulled off his proto-conductor ring, and the illusion around him shattered with copper light. He sank to Ambrose’s side and leaned in close.
Ambrose squinted at Francis’s face before his eyes widened. “Theta…”
Oh, hell, Cadence thought as realization dawned.
Without another word, Francis pulled out his knife from his belt and drew it across his palm. His blood splattered in dollops onto the earth and he placed his glove against it. In an instant, the ground glowed a blinding pale tangerine.
* * *
A second later, Cadence found herself stumbling into the exitless meeting room that she’d been inside only hours earlier. Before she face-planted on the ground, Jericho grabbed her by the back of the collar and righted her. After shooting Jericho a grateful look, she glanced up to gauge how surprised the executives were at their arrival.
Allen, Carl, Agape, Cavallo, and Bendetto were still seated at the table and looked more amusingly confused than anything else. Then they registered Ambrose.
“What the hell is that bastard doing here?!” Carl snarled, leaping to his feet and then punching his hand in his fist. “Why I oughta—”
“Please don’t tell me that’s Ambrose Campana,” Agape said thickly.
No one answered.
Fortuna was first staring holes into Ambrose who looked disoriented and was kneeling on all fours on the ground, and then into Francis who stood beside him—back and forth. Jericho was staring at Francis. Maximilian was staring at Ambrose. And Cadence herself was taking it all in.
“This is not Ambrose Campana—at least not in the fullest sense,” Francis drew slowly, brushing the dirt from his suit. He offered a hand out to Ambrose and guided the man up to his feet. “This is Epsilon. I should have realized it as soon as we reached the first Monadic temple. This may be Alpha’s hint.”
Epsilon. Leona’s voice echoed inside Cadence’s ears, most likely bleeding in from Jericho’s recent memories. An ELPIS leader.
Fortuna paled and stared at Ambrose. “Are you saying that Ambrose—”
Agape remained rigid. “Do you understand what this means?”
“It means that Ambrose Campana’s vitae has most likely returned to the cycle.” Francis nodded. “Epsilon has taken his place here and—”
“No, it means that the Campana family heir is dead and that his walking corpse is standing in front of us,” Agape interjected, eyes narrowing. “And now they’re going to be looking for him. All of this on top of our missing car—children? Why did you bring him here?”
“Agape…” Cavallo drew, holding up a hand. “This could be useful—”
“Epsilon is a Specialist,” Francis continued, unperturbed. “His research was always dedicated to how memory is stored in vitae. Thus ironically, he can extract and separate memory from vitae as well as transfer it from person to person.” Francis paused, then added, “Pi will be very happy to see him.”
Cadence exchanged a glance with Jericho before she shook her head. “Wait, a minute,” she interjected, recalling what she’d learned in the first Monadic temple about people having visions and being approached by a man. Paired with what she’d just experienced— intuition. “So him doin’ mouth-ta-mouth with me was—”
“Him sharing some of that vitae and making it so you were able to access the memories stored in that vitae.”
“Wait. I thought bleached vitae can’t take on any new memories…” Cadence rubbed the back of her neck.
“It can’t,” Francis confirmed. “What Epsilon gave you was either his own vitae if it was an old memory… or it was another’s vitae he has separated from someone else and temporarily stored inside of himself if it was a new memory.”
Cadence felt like she was understanding less and less about vitae every day.
Ambrose—Epsilon—stared at Cadence and ran a thumb over his lower lip. “Is that not socially acceptable here? Well, I guess it wasn’t back then either…”
Fortuna stared, still pale. Cadence felt bad for her. She knew that Fortuna’s engagement with Ambrose had been a political ploy, but there had to be some feelings there. Every lie slowly became a truth one way or another. That was the way the world worked.
“I’m so glad to finally see someone familiar again!” Epsilon exclaimed suddenly, wrapping Francis in a hug and causing a vein to appear at Carl’s temple—visible even from Cadence’s distance. He pulled away and gestured widely. “Isn’t this era amazing, Vega? They’ve improved transportation and even found a way to communicate across long distances in a heartbeat! A te-le-phone! The two people I woke up with told me all about it. Oh, I’m fairly certain they think I have amnesia or something, but I went along with it because they just seemed so caring, don’t you think? I did end up running away though, since they were overbearing…”
There was a beat of silence.
What the…? His energy was almost Maria-like. And—wait a minute—was he actually talking positively about them? Cadence didn’t think an ELPIS leader could do that.
Epsilon leaned in close to Francis’s face. “You’re so different, Vega.” He looked him up and down. “In more ways than one. Are you comfortable?”
Saints. Here we go again, Cadence thought. She had already gone through this once with Francis but this was almost too much. Didn’t feel as bad since it wasn’t family but she did feel a bit of pity for the guy. Wait. He said ‘again,’ she realized, meaning that he’d met with an ELPIS leader before Francis.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Francis said, pulling away and studying him unperturbed. “How much do you recall? Do you recall what the syzygy is?”
“Syzygy…?” Epsilon pondered, placing a hand on his chin and staring off. “That sounds awfully familiar. Hm…”
“Epsilon was the one who developed the resistor initially,” Francis explained. “It’s because of them that we can pass on our memories.”
“Speaking of passing things on…” Epsilon held up his right hand which Cadence now realized was bleeding. He took some of the blood into his mouth and pulled Francis close—
—but Carl was leaping forward and ripping them apart before their lips even made contact. He shoved Francis to the side and picked Epsilon up by the scruff. “You bastard—”
“Carl!” Francis snapped. “He’s merely trying to share the vitae—”
“I don’t give a damn! It’s damn unsanitary! You can’t go around passin’ saliva with anyone!” Carl argued, shaking Epsilon roughly. “Especially a damned Campana—”
“I met Leo!” Epsilon exclaimed in protest, seeming to not even care for his situation. “I need to show you! And some other things—”
“Well, use a damn cup or something! Stop puttin’ that shit into your mouth!” Carl snapped back. “And spittin’ it back out!”
Epsilon ogled him. “A cup? That’s not such a bad idea…”
“Wait,” Agape interjected, walking around the table and towards them. “Whatever information he’s about to give you, I want to see it for myself too—”
“No.” Francis frowned. “It’s too dangerous for anyone here to do it.”
“Dangerous? Then how is Cadence fine?” Agape’s eyes narrowed. “Epsilon used his conductor on her, didn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Carl huffed, releasing Epsilon. “I want to see it too. Wanna see what this is all about.”
“Cadence is fine because she is a True Conductor,” Francis explained. “Her property as something equivalent to a leaky channel allows her to readily accept the influx of foreign vitae and memory.” He gestured to himself. “As for me, I’ve already gone through a… more intense process than what Epsilon is about to do and with bleached vitae—”
Carl’s gaze darkened.
Cadence cleared her throat and pressed, “Ya ain’t callin’ Carl weak or anythin’, right?”
Francis blinked and nodded. “Right. Carl, I’m not saying that I think you’re unable to physically hand it. Rather than it being that you are unable to physically withstand it, the concern lies with whether you’re going to be able to mentally handle it—”
“Who the hell says I can’t mentally withstand somethin’…?” Carl muttered, looking more blue than red.
“I agree,” Cavallo said, walking around the table and standing in front of them. “This information should be shared. We already agreed to most of your terms. It’s time that you agree with ours.”
Francis studied the man for a moment before staring at Cadence and placing a hand to his chin. After exchanging a look with Allen, he drew, “Perhaps… if we only do a sliver of the memory—only what is necessary—then we can try…”
“Not mouth-to-mouth,” Carl added.
Francis nodded in acceptance.
Soon, they were all standing in a circle and holding paper cups filled with a tiny drop of what looked like Epsilon’s blood. Only Maximallian wasn’t provided one. Epsilon stood at the center of their circle, not looking quite bothered by anything. While everyone was now looking at hum with curiosity more than shock, Fortuna was still looking at him with a tight expression.
Bad romance, huh?
Cadence exchanged a look with Jericho beside her and held her cup to him. Talk about a turn of events, ‘ey? The others’ll be surprised.
Jericho stared at her cup for a long minute before raising his cup to tap hers. Yes. Surprised.
With that, they all downed their cups.
Epsilon stared at them for a beat, then clenched his gloved hand.Cadence’s vision immediately went black before a similar memory to the one before played out in front of her. It felt more like it was a memory of what happened afterwards—
She was walking behind Vega and Altair who were hand-in-hand and whispering into each other’s ears. Beside her was the golden man—Leo—who was admiring the seaside peeking out between the pillars lining the right side of the open hall.
In the blink of an eye, the scenery disappeared. Cadence now found herself seated nervously in
front of a very familiar-looking older man with an eyepatch slapped over his right eye. His hair was graying and tied up into a ponytail, while his chin was dotted with stubble and crisscrossed with scars. Behind the man, Cadence spied Ambrose—Epsilon—staring at her in slight confusion. And beside Epsilon was a young, pale woman with snow-white skin, black curling hair, and ruby red lips.
Cadence’s heart skipped a beat.
Was that… Alma…? It couldn’t be—
The scenery twisted again, but only slightly so. The elder, graying man melded into a young man—a boy probably no older than sixteen—who sported an eyepatch over the same eye. He sported the same cheeky smile too. While Ambrose—Epsilon—remained in the same position as he’d been in before in the background, Alma had been replaced by a familiar, cheeky, round, youthful face. Fleck—one of the kids.
She struggled and tried to reach out, but the world faded into black once more.
When Cadence returned to herself in the exitless meeting room, she found that Fortuna, Allen, Carl, Agape, Cavallo, and Bendetto were either all on the ground, on all-fours, or swaying with varying expressions of alarm. The paper cups that had once been in their hands were scattered on the ground.
“What the hell was that?” Carl hissed from where he sat sweating.
“I told you!” Francis chided, rushing to Carl’s side and easing him up to a stand. He looked over with clear-cut worry at Allen who was being eased up by Maximallian. “You okay, Al?”
Allen nodded but said nothing.
Cadence studied them all in confusion before pacing over to Fortuna and helping her to her feet. Jericho followed behind her, looking around stiffly.
“Neither of you feel anything?” Agape pressed as she was guided to her feet by Bendetto. She was dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief she pulled from her pocket and ogled Francis then Cadence herself and Jericho.
Cavallo asked quietly from where he’d righted himself beside her, “Did you not see anything?”
Cadence shared a look with Jericho.
Jericho stared back at her. Is that a ‘rhetorical’ question?
Cadence reached over, lowered his air quotation marks, and said, “Depends on what ya mean by ‘feel’? I mean, we sure saw things. The eye-patch guy for one… and Alma.” She tensed. “The kids—”
Saints—realization dawned on Cadence. Alma…?! Alma was there with Alpha? The radio kept saying she’d been whisked away, but Cadence hadn’t thought it’d be like this. Where was Enzo then? Wait—was that Alpha? And the kidstoo. Saints. The kids and Alpha or not-Alpha.
Despite her panic, Cadence kept her expression light and even as her thoughts continued to race—
But the eye-patch older man…? He looked exactly like the man from Maria’s very faint childhood memories. The one who had taken her from the temple. But Alpha was also possibly—maybe—the guy who whisked Jericho away, wasn’t he? What was going on here? Saints—
It is okay, Cadence, came Jericho’s voice paired with a hand on her shoulder. Do not act when you are confused.
Cadence turned to find him there holding his thumbs up and with a steely expression. The heat over-boiling in his chest was almost painful.
Aw, hell. Here she was freaking out when—
Cadence reached out and tapped Jericho’s hand that was resting in her shoulder. It’ll be peachy right back at ya, detective. We got some info, but we still don’t know everythin’, right?
Jericho’s steeliness softened slightly and the simmering calmed. He nodded.
Agape interjected, “No, ‘feel,’ like—”
“That’s just damn creepy.” Carl rubbed his hand down his face before jabbing a fingering at a befuddled-looking Ambrose—Epsilon. “It felt like I was actually him.”
“Because for a moment, you were and you were also briefly the other person whose vitae you’ve been provided with,” Francis explained, pulling away. “Vitae particles are equivalent to the soul and able to store memory. What Epsilon just excised from himself was equivalent to his soul and the soul of a person who was present during his encounter with—”
Carl grimaced. “I just ate this bastard’s soul?”
“I told you that already, didn’t I?” Francis’s voice became steely. “And it’s not ‘some bastard.’ His name is Epsilon.” His expression darkened. “Despite the warnings and dangers, you still decide to take senseless risks and pursue things that you don’t understand. Time and time again.”
“Okay, Francis, okay.” Cadence cleared her throat, squeezing in-between the two and giving both a squeeze on the shoulder. “We’re all a bit confused and shaken up from things, right? Let’s just take it easy.”
Francis regarded her for a moment before shame folded across his face. “I’m sorry, Carl…”
“That’s becoming your catchphrase now, ain’t it?” Carl mumbled. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry too I guess. Should’ve listened.”
“I was carried away myself by what Epsilon showed,” Francis admitted, morose. “If you linger too long in the past, you will certainly start to consider it your present.”
Carl interjected awkwardly, “Theta’s a woman?”
“That’s not the point, Carl.” Francis nodded at Epsilon. “Was that Alpha? In two initiations? Did you somehow encounter both…?”
“Both?” Epsilon frowned. “Hard to say. He kept asking me for things…” He gazed past Francis at Cadence. “True Conductors. You’re a True Conductor? That’s why you weren’t negatively affected. True Conductors… Leaky channels. Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus…”
Jericho stepped in front of Cadence.
“Ophiuchus? The country?” Bendetto tried, obviously curious and confused.
“No, no, no, Ophiuchus the person. The true teacher. Our teacher,” Epsilon insisted before he startled. “Oh. I remember. Vaguely. The incident with Virgo and then Scorpio after that. The turning point. They all slowly agreed with it—the syzygy. Everyone but Ophiuchus and Leo. Yes, Leo! Leo is good. The best!” He began to pace back and forth. “She’s on our side because she’s so good. Oh, the saint candidates. They were the guiding light, the lexicon of wisdom—”
Carl, Allen, and Fortuna exchanged looks as did Bendetto and Agape.
Saints, Cadence thought. They had a fanatic on their hands, didn’t they? The opposite of other ELPIS Leaders. She could feel Jericho struggling trying to make heads-or-tails of the new slew of information—probably not good for his mental health.
And so, Cadence switched gears and addressed Epsilon with a pleasant smile, “Hey, ya mind givin’ us more details on the eye-patch guy ya saw, Epsi?”
Epsilon opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head. “No, no, I shouldn’t. I should wait for Leo—”
“Epsilon…” Francis said thickly. “That wasn’t a question. Besides, Leo is—”
Epsilon glanced at him. “You sound different Vega. Were you not initiated correctly?” He pulled back and shook his head. “No, no, I stand by it. I don’t feel comfortable with sharing anymore. I want to see Leo…”
“What?” Carl glowered. “Are you kiddin’ me switchin’ it up all of a sudden? You better—”
“I might actually have a solution to that,” Cadence interjected with an easy smile. She cautiously approached Epsilon, looked him up and down, before rounding him and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Ya said ya saw Leo earlier in Comientzo, right? Curly dark-brown hair? Green eyes? Smiles a lot?”
Epsilon’s eyes became saucers, and he took her hands in his own. “Yes, yes, exactly! That’s her!”
Cadence smiled kindly. “I might be able ta connect ya with her—and then ya can share everything, right?”
The Twelve Pillars of Monadism should be kept close to the heart and are examples of what a person should do in order to achieve wholeness of self. This especially holds true for Monadic priests and the Saint Candidates.Monadism, Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition
3 thoughts on “23.2: Swindler—An Old War, Regresando”
Hey, y’all! Sorry for the late chapter! It’s another lengthy one! Unfortunately, I have a sad announcement to make. I am going to switch to a single chapter/week schedule. With two jobs and school, writing has become difficult—especially with monstrous chapters like these. I forgot to add that this is only until mid-December OTL
On the bright side, for chapters that are under 6k words, I will most likely/probably be updating 2x a week. For chapters over 8k a week, I will be sticking with one. That is a rule I set for myself. I just need time to think about the chapters. I have everything planned out but I need to thinkkkk
Thirdly, I really want to shoutout a reader @kysolaris who is a super talented writer and poet! Her prose makes me weep! She made me cry over discord. Follow her on twitter if you can!
My feeling that eyepatch man dipped Maria in Leo’s pool very briefly is seeming more and more likely
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Ambrose died because Fortuna started to develop feeling for him. R.I.P 😭
I really really want to see Theta meet with Romano boss though. Wonder what Theta would think of the boy who lived (and turned Mafia boss)
P.s. I was right! Vega was a woman 🥳. Omicron also seems to be woman too. But it was mentioned back then that they didn’t marry right? Surely the old era these ELPIS kept boasting as being in true peace wouldn’t hinder same gender marriage and the like so I wonder what the backstory is all the more.