The children under the care of Cadence Morello and the Foxmans—including an orphan named Kent—have run away and have been taken in by Alpha, an ELPIS leader with connections to Maria’s and possibly Jericho’s past. In the background, Elizabeta has been set on Taurus’s tail by Scorpio while Taurus herself tracks down Gamma who is wearing Wtorek Izsak, her father.
The metallic rattle of the chugging train reminded Wtorek Elizabeta of the past. She never quite liked traveling by train or v-ehicle. It always gave her kinetosis—nausea, motion sickness, dizziness, vomiting, and everything in-between. Ironically, playing train had been Csilla’s favorite pretend activity when she’d been younger. That small warmth aside, her kinetosis had been particularly awful during the war when she’d have to traverse great distances across Signum on air Elementalists’ conductors to trauma sites.
She still remembered it even now—the feeling of both being in a daze and being sharp and alert at the same time. The sweat, the grime, the haze of ash that seemed to cloud every skyline. Sitting behind cliff-faces in huddled circles in the dim heat produced by an Ariesian fire Elementalist as air Elementalists swept above them. It was there that Izsak had reached for and held her hand for the first time. A lifeline and a sign of stability in an unstable time.
When the war had ended and she’d joined Gabrielle and Moerani with Izsak in Ophiuchus, her kinetosis had been a concern for her when trying to determine which department she should apply for. Izsak had already settled on the General Investigations to be with Gabrielle, while Moerani had suddenly been swept up into the Licensing Department.
“Leave the field work to me, honey,” Izsak had cooed while squeezing her shoulder tight. “You should just stay in the Serpens Establishment. We can’t have your beautiful, dainty hands becoming all gnarled up by doing field work, right? They’re your best feature!”
Elizabeta had punched him lightly in the arm to show him how ‘dainty’ she could be, and he had merely laughed in response. That had been their routine back then. Tease, tease back, laugh. One never really appreciated routines until they were no longer present.
“It might be good to spread us out more,” Gabrielle had reasoned after. “Get into the social spheres of other departments and work our way up.”
And that had been that. The decision made.
Elizabeta wondered now why she had listened to Gabrielle so readily back then. Had it been because they had bonded through the trauma of the war—side-by-side as they crept through the ruins of Ophiuchus and the deserts of Scorpio? Maybe, so. Gabrielle had always taken the lead back then. Making decisions and directing orders whenever they’d lost communication with their leading commander. She had seemed so reliable to their young eyes. Moerani and Izsak had certainly admired her—and Elizabeta admittedly too. They were all barely touching the cusp of adulthood at that tumultuous time, so seeing Gabrielle who was around their age holding such confidence and gusto had painted her more as a leader than their commanders at the time. But an eighteen-year-old—no matter the demeanor, time, nor occupation—was still a child too. All that gusto had been mere naivety.
Absent-mindedly as Elizabeta recalled the past, she twisted the wedding band around her ring finger and stared out past the train window. Gray plains pressed flat against the ground stretched out far into the distance where they met with the even grayer sky.
“Do you remember Ophiuchus, Elizabeta?” Scorpio had prodded that day when she’d visited his office with a scalpel in hand. “Not this Ophiuchus but the one that came before?”
“You said you’d help me follow my passions,” she’d responded flatly. “My passion isn’t trivia games.”
“It’s called context, Elizabeta,” Scorpio had informed her, mimicking Talib’s manner of speech like a bastard. “Csilla is quite clever. I saw her literally half-beat, half-soothe Mr. Wtorek’s home-base location out of one of his new ELPIS recruits.”
“Csilla’s trying to find Izsak…” Elizabeta’s heart had fluttered at this.
“Don’t you mean she’s pursuing Gamma?” Scorpio had prodded innocently. “Regardless, here’s the context, Elizabeta. Around five or so centuries ago, there was a place that dear old Mnemos—ELPIS leader if you were wondering—built to serve as a…. place of knowledge and restitute? It was called Lamendos.” He had sighed dismissively. “Honestly, I’d completely forgotten about it. I’d assumed the others had dismantled the place after our fall out a couple centuries ago or that it’d been burned down during the war, but I suppose at least one of them was attached to the place. Mr. Wtorek has been using it as a temporary holding place while he jumps around with Vega’s gates.”
“I’ve never heard of a place called Lamendos.” Elizabeta had frowned, tense, distrustful. “If you people knew about that place, then why did you let ELPIS continue like this?” She added thickly, “Not your department?”
“If you know about Gamma and Taurus, then why are you so adamant on going after them?” Scorpio had returned evenly. “Attachment? Lingering passions? Curiosity?” His smile had thinned into a line and then a frown as his eyes narrowed. “But I do find it all very negligent and apathetic, slovenly, lazy.” He placed a hand over his heart and fisted his shirt as his eyes seemed to become afire. “The syzygy pulses inside of all of us, begging to be completed and yet—” He looked up at her sharply, and for a moment Elizabeta swore she saw Talib there with begging eyes, but then his gaze pierced her through like an arrow.
In that instant, a sensation of dread had seized Elizabeta at the pit of her stomach and squeezed tight. Cold sweat broke across her nape as the intense sensation of being watched from above, below, beside, within surged through her. Invisible eyes crawling beneath her skin as the invasive thought pounded in her mind: mediums, everywhere, spores, how did she know she wasn’t infected yet, what if, what if—
But then Scorpio had suddenly relaxed back into his chair smiling again. “It won’t be too long before this travels up to the ELPIS Department and lands on dear Leona’s desk.”
Elizabeta’s heart skipped a beat.
“I can see that you have concerns about the ELPIS Department catching up to those Wtorek runaways before you—although I assure you that your problems are much pointier than that.” Scorpio hummed. “Say—why don’t you get a head-start?”
Lamendos—Elizabeta recalled Scorpio informing her after the fact—was a place that was built within a Bikakönyv mountainside located near a small town in Taurus called Anyaizeretet. The town she was currently heading to—renowned for its flowering prairies in warm seasons and a popular tourist attraction in the spring.
Elizabeta had vacationed together here once with Izsak and Elizabeta. Izsak had wanted to go to the beaches of Pisces, but Elizabeta had insisted on this place. In the end, after an intense game of Ariesian rock-paper-scissors with Csilla as the final judge, Elizabeta had emerged victorious.
Now in the heart of winter, it was cold and desolate, but it was not as devoid of people as one would think. As the train drew near the town station viewable from a kilometer away, Elizabeta could spy v-ehicles trickling along into and out of town on the adjacent road. Conductor engineers working on the ley lines being built here, most likely. It seemed as if ley lines were being constructed everywhere recently. She’d even heard that the Ariesian prince had started a ley line construction project in some unknown town in his country.
Elizabeta had supported ley lines at first. Being able to harvest vitae from streams paired with being able to divert vitae from reservoirs to areas of vitae drought sounded like the culmination of all of their efforts as Ophiuchus. Unit, globalism, mutually-assured benefits.
Now, with the thought of human beings churning through the insulators and ley-lines, Elizabeta felt only disgust. The fact that they’d been using this for centuries made her want to puke. Every time she flipped on the v-lights in her office, she’d stare up at them until they burned her eyes. She’d always imagined Izsak coming in dramatically and exclaiming jokingly, “Honey, what are you doing?! Only one of us can have bad vision! It’s part of our opposites attract charm!”
Talib would swoop in a moment after and speak of the diabolicalness of v-lights and how they were the Organization’s weapon, while everyone else looked in with amusement. Who knew that he’d been right all along.
Talib had been a good young man just as Izsak was a good man. It was always the good ones that were twisted around like so, leaving only the rotten apples to spread rot and disease.
“You’ve been using vitae for centuries,” was close to what Scorpio had told them all during his last visit, “so why change now? What makes you think you can change? Do you think letting the public know about vitae will sway their thoughts over something that they’ve killed for and are sustained by? I think not.”
Signum’s future was a hopeless thing. The saint candidates were probably rolling around in their chairs laughing.
* * *
Once the train docked in the station, Elizabeta quickly offboarded and made her way to the town square to find the building where the local Hegyi Utazók took up residence. Hegyi Utazók, the mountain travelers, Earth Elementalists. These Conductors were what Taurus were renowned for. They had built a reputation for themselves during the Reservoir War for digging tunnels beneath the ground in order to evade air Elementalist raids and explosive mines. They even helped to carve some of the most indestructible bomb shelters of the modern era. True fortresses. Now, they were mountain guides renowned for keeping curious tourists safe when they visited Taurus’s scenic yet dangerous mountain ranges.
Elizabeta spotted the building where the Hegyi Utazók worked in town rather easily. The building was one-story tall with a rounded clay body and a flat red roof. A large sign marked with three russet triangles encapsulated in a circle protruding bull horns lay right beside its entry doors. The Bikakönyv mountains loomed just it and served as further designation.
Upon entering the building, she was greeted with a single narrow room with a large, oval-shaped island table taking up its center space. Clustered around that table were men and women dressed in dusted button-ups and slacks and wrapped up in leather straps and buckles. They turned to look at Elizabeta, eyes sharp as their former conversational whispering died down.
Elizabeta was not wearing her Ophiuchian sash nor her usual crisp standard suit and lab coat. Instead she was in a pair of tweed slacks and a herringbone-patterned overcoat. Civilian wear as to not turn the eyes. Her Ophiuchian badge was, of course, still on her person—ready to be drawn out and used as a means of coercion if necessary. Again. Only if necessary.
“Sorry, ma’am,” said one of the women at the table in Common. “We’re not helping people up the mountain ranges this week. Trouble with the ley-lines up near the summit or something.”
Another woman grumbled, “Local government already cut down the number of tours we can give this past month because of that damned ley-line project. Wanted us to focus on transporting those Conductor engineers up and down instead and help them dig through the mountains on a poor pension. Researchers are cheap on tips too. Barely tip a fillér per transport. And now this?”
“I doubt she wants to listen to us complain,” the woman who’d spoken first interjected. She nodded at Elizabeta. “There’s plenty of other places to see around here, ma’am.”
“No, I’m actually curious,” Elizabeta replied in Taurusian. “What’s happened now?”
Everyone seemed to perk up at the sound of their native tongue and exchanged looks.
“Apparently they found some strange old buried relic-y catacomb place up in the mountains,” the first woman explained in Taurusian. “Can’t tell if it’s from the war-era or if it’s pre-Reservoir War. The local government didn’t want us to ‘accidentally dislodged something and bury the area in a rock slide.’” She scoffed. “Talk about insulting.”
“I saw it myself—the underground relic-y area.” One of the men nodded. “I was up there helping them with digging the tunnels for the ley lines when we uncovered it. It’s not just a relic thing. There’s a vitae pool down there…” He pinched his fingers together then rubbed the back of his neck. “Some poor girl was holed up there too for saint’s knows what reason.”
A strange girl? Csilla…?
The man made a swirling motion at his temple. “Didn’t speak a lick of sense. Who knows how long she was up there all by herself.”
“What was the color of her vitae? What did she look like?”
The mountaineers exchanged looks.
“Dunno. Didn’t see her too clearly. They didn’t test her vitae either. She’s still down there, I think. Wouldn’t budge, I heard.”
Elizabeta tried her best to remain level-headed as her heart roared. “Are any of you able to take me up there? I will pay anything.”
Everyone looked away.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the first woman offered a shrug. “A law is a law, and we really can’t afford to lose our conducting license over something like this. Like I said, there’s plenty of other things to see here.”
For a moment, Elizabeta considered pulling out her Ophiuchian badge and forcing them to take her up in response. After some thought, she set aside the idea and turned on her heels.
When Elizabeta pulled out of the building, she did not march out in defeat but with determination. She would go up that mountain and reach the summit within a day even if it killed her—
“H-Heard you need an Earth Elementalist to wing you up the mountain,” came a sudden voice from behind her.
Elizabeta turned to find a panting older man with graying hair emerge out from the building she’d just exited. He stopped short in front of her before he doubled over panting.
“Arnold. Miksa Arnold.” The man straightened himself and shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
“How much?” Elizabeta asked flatly. She knew these types well enough.
Arnold whistled, before rubbing his conductor-gloved hands together. “Well, since we’re doing this under the table….”
* * *
Arnold took Elizabeta to the foot of the mountain and to a jagged cliffside where a dozen large and flat slab stones rested on the ground. He hopped up the one closest and extended his hand out to her. She readily accepted and took a moment to steady herself on the rock. In the meantime, he handed her a pair of goggles which she quickly fastened over her eyes. He proceeded to put on a pair himself, before bending down and pressing his gloved hands against the rock below them. Light brown luminescence poured out from his fingertips and coated the rocky platform before spilling ever so slightly onto the mountainside. The platform trembled before creaking and groaning up along the cliff-face.
“You steady over there?” Arnold asked. “Just get low if you feel imbalanced.”
“I’m good,” Elizabeta replied. “I’ve ridden like this before. I came here once on vacation with my family.”
“That’s nice.” Arnold smiled. “Not bringing them along this time?”
“They’re gone. No… I’m looking for them.”
“Oh… alright then.”
With that, they began to slowly then rapidly shoot up the mountain. Dust flew into the air as rock graveled against rock. Raining down from this cloud was a constant shower of tapping pebbles. Every so often, they would reach a flat protrusion on the mountain side and off-board onto another rocky platform and ascend on it. They continued like that in silence for quite some time.
“I really don’t like Ophiuchus coming up in our home and stirring the pot, yeah?” Arnold said suddenly on their fourth rock platform as he rubbed his nose. “We decided to work with Ophiuchus on this ley-line project, and now the ELPIS Department is just swooping in wherever they please…” He wiped some of the dust off of his goggles. “Glad they haven’t stopped by here yet, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time. Don’t like their first chair much either. That Leona Gloria-Angelo.”
Elizabeta was getting somewhat tired of hearing people talking about the ley-line construction projects day-in-day-out. Every other patient she’d been receiving talked about it. Frankly, Elizabeta herself didn’t care anymore just as she didn’t care for who won the elections anymore. Her passion had started to dim after Izsak—Gamma—returned from New Ram City, her care had started to dim after learning of ELPIS’s origins and the vitae levels, while her apathy took hold once Csilla had run away—
“That Talib Al-Jarrah.” Arnold sniffed. “Now he talks some sense.”
“He’s not Talib.”
—but despite all of this, Elizabeta could not stand to let that Scorpio bastard win. Maybe that was just her Taurusian stubbornness coming through.
“Why not vote for Gabrielle Law?” Elizabeta suggested.
“Not only did she serve in the war, but she’s also Ariesian and was an Ariesian Knight.” Elizabeta explained. “You fought in the war, didn’t you?”
Arnold looked back at her in surprise. “Ariesian-Taurusian 276th Company.”
Izsak’s, Moerani’s, and Gabrielle’s company…
“113th for me,” Elizabeta replied, before adding, “Aries was one of our best allies. If anyone would understand our struggles, it would either be Sera Aliz who’s from Taurus herself or Gabrielle. But Aliz is a desk worker. She hasn’t been down on the ground like us like Gabrielle has.”
“Huh….” Arnold lolled his head from side-to-side. “Alright. I’ll look into her then.”
They continued up the mountain from earthen cluster to earthen cluster in silence. When a plateau loomed into view, the rocky platform began to slow its up-crawling pace.
“Alright,” Arnold said as he guided the platform up to touch the lip of the plateau. “We’re here.”
The plateau they arrived at wasn’t quite the summit of the mountain—no, Elizabeta could still see the mountain extending up behind the plateau. Still—the plateau itself might have been breathtaking in its absolute flatness if it weren’t for the fact that v-ehicles, disconnected insulation tubes, and other mechanical devices clustered its surface near its center. A circle of wooden blockades surrounded the area, but there was not a person in sight. Not even a guard to ward of people.
“Looks like it’s your lucky day,” Arnold noted. “The crotchety guard isn’t here, so you can take your time to sightsee.”
As the rumbling from the moving rock platform quieted and stilled completely, Elizabeta was able to pick up the background beats of the mountain. Distant bird cries, the whistling wind—but not the ambient silence that she was always fond of in the mountain ranges of Taurus. No, something else was buzzing faintly in the air.
Elizabeta tuned her ears and then froze.
Was that… music?
“Stay here,” Elizabeta ordered, digging into her wallet in her pocket and handing the man 50 fillér.
“It’s dangerous,” Arnold began. “Something’s not right—”
Elizabeta whipped out her Ophiuchian badge and shoved in his face. The man immediately paled before his eyes narrowed. She didn’t stay to discuss the issue with him, however. Cautiously, she approached the central work site, taking note of the unmanned v-ehicles and conductors along the way. A cracked safety helmet lay discarded on the ground caught her attention, and she paced over to it before picking it up. Blood was smeared near the rim of the cap. But that was not the greatest peculiarity. The greatest peculiarity was the fact that clothing was scattered all over the ground: vests, blouses, suits, ties, shoes, socks.
Elizabeta’s eyes were then drawn to an opening in the plateau that all the v-ehicles seemed to be gathered around. It was a jagged circle that looked roughly 10 meters wide in diameter and was ringed with embedded climbing hooks with strong metal cables slung on them. The cables dropped down into the hole—most likely used by the Taurusians who were working on the ley-lines to descend down.
The music was emanating from inside, Elizabeta realized. Crouching low, she drifted over to the hole and peered over its edge. Much to her surprise, she was able to see its depth fully. The cavern hidden below stretched on for meters. At its floor glowed a pulsating pool of vitae out from which white pillars grew. On the edges of the vitae pool’s bank rested a grand piano manned by a pale and thin woman with thick black curls. Her fingers glided across the keyboard like water. Surrounding her were bodies. Countless bodies.
A dozen children ran around the corpses squealing—with horror or laughter, Elizabeta didn’t know. Around them curled a haze of white smoke; and as that smoke drifted across the corpses, they melted slowly into nothing, leaving only clothes behind Like Jericho’s conducting but grotesque—not that Jericho’s conducting wasn’t terrifying in itself.
And yet still, the woman on the piano continued to play and the children continued to run around avoiding the mist. A moment later, Elizabeta came to realize that these strange people were not the only ones dismissive of the carnage around them.
On top of the pillars emerging from the vitae pools rested three young women. Two were dressed in jet black Monadic priest garbs, while another was dressed in a strapless gown.
It was absolute madness—
A small, barely-humanoid figure suddenly emerged from the shroud of white mist. Their skin was bubbling, sizzling, and peeling, but they continued forward like a tank. Once they reached an area clear of the corrosive material, Elizabeta was able to see their melting features fully. Muscle, bone, fat—all of it began to glow a dark russet color.
And then slowly, stomach-churningly, the figure’s features began to slowly reform themselves. Skin crawling up muscle and bone, eye dragging up bone into socket, fat filling up the spaces in-between, hair slinking into follicle.
Elizabeta felt her heart sink and rise all at once as she came to recognize the face that finished taking shape.
Former Twin Cities street rat Kent Gambino still remembered when Theta had first appeared before him. Kent wasn’t a Specialist like many of the others that Theta had brought in. No, he was one of the ones Theta had brought in before the Twin Cities Bombings. Kent liked to think he was an original and one of Theta’s favorites because of this. At first.
On that night, he and several of his friends had been scrounging around in the Pungale alleyway dumpsters outside of the Punto del Palazzo restaurant in Romano Family territory in hopes of getting some scraps for dinner. It would’ve been the first time his group had gotten a meal in two days.
Just as they’d peeled out a handful of pasta noodles soaked in wine and other unknown liquids from the bins, Kent had found himself yanked into a chokehold by the back of his shirt. He barely had the time to scream before he was pulled up right and cracked on the nose.
Pain, dizziness, pounding.
When the stars faded from his vision, Kent was greeted by a sneering older man with a thick neck and a balding head. He whimpered then saw his friends being kicked to the side of the wall by two men dressed as chefs through a haze of tears.
“You filthy street rats!” the balding man snarled, wringing Kent by his throat. “You think you can come in and take our food for free, huh? What if our damned customers see you? You’ll upset their stomachs and tank our ratings!”
Kent knew it was no use apologizing or begging because it had never worked before. So, he merely squeezed his eyes shut and waited. But the beat down never came.
Opening his eyes tentatively and curiously, Kent spied him—
Theta, appearing in the mouth of the alleyway just as it had become illuminated by the v-headlights of passing v-ehicle. The man’s hand had been pressed tight against his abdomen, his face pallid and pale. Still, he’d cut an imposing figure in the lit darkness.
“M-Mr. Foxman!” The balding man threw Kent to the ground and galloped over to Theta—arms widespread, smiling with teeth. “What are you doin’ out here? Did you all cash out already? Was the food to your liking, sir?”
Theta didn’t answer and instead stared past the man’s shoulder at Kent who froze in his gaze and momentarily forgot the pain throbbing at his throat and face.
Mr. Foxman. The name had rung like a bell of terror through Kent’s mind. Oh saints, he’d thought then, now I’m really gonna die.
“I don’t mean to overstate it over and over again,” the balding man continued, “but I really appreciate you and your brothers sponsorin’ our restaurant. Really.”
Theta brushed past him and came to a stand before Kent. He spoke in some language Kent didn’t understand before he stated in Common: “This surplus of food that the privileged here seem to waste without care will rot and decay away, attracting disease and pestilence. I see no issue in offering this excess to individuals who need it. I don’t see why it’s not something that’s already done to begin with.”
“Do you understand that these are children?”
“Er, Mr. Foxman. Sorry you had to see ‘em.” The balding man came to Theta’s side and gestured to Kent himself and then to Kent’s friends who had also been tossed to the side. “They’re just street rats. Probably’ll die within a week—”
Abruptly, Theta threw out his hand directly at the balding man, his fingers barely ghosting the man’s throat. The balding man tensed, wide eyed, but didn’t move. Theta stared at him for a long while before retracting his hand, staring at it, then dropping it. “Leave.”
“I said leave.”
The balding man shared a look with the two chefs, cleared his throat, mumbled an odd thank you and farewell, and then departed.
Theta didn’t watch them leave and instead sank down in front of Kent with a reaching hand. “Are you alright?”
Kent’s friends came to Kent’s side immediately and began to whimper senselessly. We didn’t mean to cross your turf, Mr. Foxman; we don’t have anything, Mr. Foxman; please, Mr. Foxman.
“You needn’t be afraid,” Theta said calmly, his hand finishing it’s course and resting on Kent’s cheek. A warm hand. “I’m not a member of the Foxman family.”
“B-But…” whispered one of Kent’s friends. “They called you… Mr. Foxman.”
“What other people call you is not your identity. Your identity is what you choose to call yourself and what you allow others to call you.”
They’d stared without understanding.
Finally, Kent asked tentatively, “So what do we call you?”
“You can call me…” Theta had hesitated, pondering. “Theta.”
After that, Theta had brought them to a small dinner and had fed them five whole courses. All the while, he watched them with a pleasant smile before asking them— Are you happy? Slow down. Do you have a place to stay? Would you like to come with me? Would you like me to protect you? And finally, What’s your name?
Kent, Lia, Matthieu, they told him.
Bellies full and a haze of sleep upon them, they’d then decided to accept Theta’s invite into his amazingly awesome secret room. There were other strange adults there in that room—a man who always shouted, a woman who was always mad, another woman who always laughed and flipped her hair, and another woman who was attached to Theta’s hip. Well, it was more like Theta was attached to her hip. They were very touchy feely and open about their mushiness which always brought heat to Kent’s cheeks, but they were the nicest ones out of the bunch to Kent and his friends so Kent never complained.
Then came the bad night in the Twin Cities when Theta had asked them all to leave. It still haunted Kent’s nightmares sometimes. The dark city. The fires. The screams. The police officers. The street gangs. The explosions. When that night ended, Miss Omicron was dead, Theta had disappeared with the wind, and Kent—his friends included—had found himself pulled under the wing of the other Foxman brothers and Miss Morello.
Miss Morello, Carl, and Allen explained them that Theta would return and that Kent himself, his friends, and the other children the Foxmans had gathered together on that night would be given food and a place to stay—a home. It sounded like a dream come true.
* * *
One day not too long after, Kent had been wandering the streets with Mr. Stefano—one of Theta’s personal assistants and a trusted Foxman worker—who had just returned home from a trip to Capricorn. As Kent rounded the corner on the way to a candy shop to buy himself and the others some sweets, he had dripped and fallen flat on his face. Stefano had been at his side in an instant.
“D-Does it hurt?”
Kent whimpered and nodded as he sat himself up.
“Do you want to be comforted?”
Kent’s cheeks had burned at the sudden question, and he’d looked up at Stefano in confusion only to find the man gazing at him with a smile.
“Why are you lying?” Stefano stared, eyes wide as saucers. “Accept who you are. Accept what you are. Shouldn’t it be easier to remain true to yourself since you’re so young?”
“You want to be held. You want to be comforted. You want to be loved. You want to be the most important person to someone. You’re afraid of being discarded again like you were discarded by your parents.”
Kent’s blood ran cold. “How do you know—”
“Because I know your parents, dear,” Mr. Stefano explained. “And you were not the most important thing to them. You’re very much like a swindler that I’ve gotten to know well recently…”
A moment later, Mr. Stefano had returned to his usual self and fretfully carried Kent all the way to the candy store. Even after downing many sweets there, those words remained burned into Kent’s mind.
* * *
Theta returned not too after that, but Mr. Stefano disappeared around the same time. Then Theta came to stay permanently and moved them all into his cool secret base. Kent had thought it was the greatest thing at first. It was like Theta’s secret base was their secret base, and he played all sorts of games—hide-and-seek, war, peacekeeping agents—with everyone there. Moving from room to room was a joy ride.
But then the locked time kept going on and on, and Kent kept dreaming of the sky and the streets again. His scores from Theta’s classes were never good enough to get him a day trip ticket out of the room.
It just wasn’t fair at all.
After some begging and pleading, Theta considered allowing him to go out, but Mr. Carl and Mr. Allen put their foot down. It was cruel, cold-hearted, mean. Didn’t they see how important going outside was to him? Didn’t they care about him? This just proved that Kent himself and the others were—
They were not special to any of them. They were not the most important person to anyone. Not Miss Cadence, not Theta or Francis, not Mr. Carl nor Mr. Allen, not even Pi or Mr. Maximallian. Just like how Kent himself had not been special to his parents. Why else would they leave him in that cold, dark, windowless room all alone without saying anything? Kent realized soon after that he and all the others kids were just things to look after. And because they were just ‘things’, it was easy for the adults to tuck them away and throw them away. Easy to forget about them. Easy to put down stupid rules just because the adults found them annoying or thought they weren’t good enough.
And that was why Kent had decided to rally the others to run away with him. It wasn’t fair, he’d urged. Not fair at all!
Most of Kent’s friends agreed with him and they convinced the others or made them agree too. Truthfully and secretly, however, Kent was afraid that if any one person remained behind then Theta and the others wouldn’t notice or care that the others including himself had left.
Planning their escape wasn’t too hard. They were Twin Cities street rats, after all. However, coming across Rho and Nu when he was going store to store window-shopping with the others was weird. Miss Morello had taught him the importance of stranger danger earlier that month, so he had been cautious when they’d been approached by the priestly duo. At first Nu offered candy which Kent and some of the other kids declined politely. Then the two kept following them.
“Are you Theta’s kids?” Rho asked after with a warm smile.
Kent stopped and turned. “You know Theta?”
“Of course, we know Theta!” Rho beamed. “We’re Theta’s old friends! Omicron’s too! I heard from down the drain that you were all cooped up in that room of theirs—is that true? You’re all on lockdown?”
“We’re not on lockdown!” one of the others half-grumbled, half-shouted.
“Well, that’s good,” Rho continued pleasantly. “I know Theta can be overly strict sometimes…” She looked them over. “Wait a moment. Did you guys run away from Theta?”
Kent tensed. “W-What’s it to you? Are you going to force us back, huh?”
“Of course not, sweetie!” Rho laughed and gently pushed Nu. “Like I said, Theta can be overly strict sometimes. He’ll find you in a matter of hours if you keep wandering around like this.” She hummed, glancing at Nu beside her. “What do you think, Nu?”
“Come with us,” Nu answered curtly. “We’ll hide you. We’ll go somewhere fun. Only if you want to.”
One thing led to the next and suddenly they were all brought onboard a ship docked in the Pollux Bay. It was one of the Foxman’s ships—Kent was sure, and he was reassured by this fact. If they were using Theta’s ship, then they really had to be Theta’s friends.
Much to Kent’s surprise, there were already other children on board the ship. They looked Aquarian and Capricornian and spoke in thickly accented Common as they welcomed Kent and the others onboard.
“You’ll love it here,” send one of the Aquarians. “He can make all of your dreams come true if you dedicate yourself.”
On the first night on that ship as they were shoveling down sweet bread in the mess hall alongside some of the older children, an adult suddenly came down to join them. While the resident Aquarians and Capricornians didn’t pay the woman any mind, Kent and his friends gasped in awe.
“Alma! It’s Alma Miraggio!”
Alma Miraggio. The Ophiuchian Way star. In the flesh!
“I thought she went missing…” Lia whispered from beside Kent.
Alma smiled pleasantly at them and waved, while one of the Aquarians children hobbled over to her side and conjured her a large piano. Kent only saw it for an instant, but the Aquarian’s vitae—it was bleached white. Like Pi’s.
Not paying the Aquarian any mind, Alma seated herself and immediately began to play a hopping, popping jive. It sounded almost like the way Mis Morello played—no, it sounded even better than Miss Morello’s songs. Kent was astounded.
Halfway through her third song, however, Alma suddenly stopped playing. Kent was upset at this and turned to complain only to stop short when he spied a tall and looming figure standing beside Alma at the piano.
It was a young man—no, maybe it was a teenager. He looked only a couple years older than them—barely an adult. His hair was a tousled brown, and he was dressed in an odd uniform that had a black collar paired with black wrist cuffs. Kent thought he’d seen the uniform once in one of Theta’s Piscese military books.
“Welcome on board,” the young man said pleasantly. “I hope you’re enjoying yourselves.” He paused. “My name is Alpha, but I’ve been known as Proteus, Angelo, Dmitri, Hozen, and so on in the past. You can call me whatever you want.” He gestured loosely. “You can stay with me as long as you want and leave whenever you want.” Then he spread his arms and chuckled. “I can’t imagine you’d want to leave from what I’ve heard from Nu and Rho. Theta was keeping you cooped up, wasn’t he?”
“Theta was protecting us…” Lia mumbled beside Kent.
Kent resisted rolling his eyes. Lia was always flip-floppy. He had to spend two hours convincing her to come with him. Always such a killjoy and a worrywart. Even back when they’d been on the streets before Theta.
“Protection doesn’t mean happiness, does it?” Alpha mused. “That was always Vega’s problem. She’s been never been good with touching people’s hearts and allowing people to touch hers. She doesn’t know how to bring other people happiness and freedom. Few people do. I suppose that’s a strength in itself. Freedom—that is, if it weren’t for Altair, but I digress.”
Lia squirmed from beside Kent, then asked, “Theta’s going to be looking for us, won’t he…?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let Theta cut our playtime short.” Alpha smiled widely before taking a seat on the table next to Kent. “Theta will most likely head to Leo since we’ve left a breadcrumb trail for them there. We, on the other hand, are taking a scenic route to Taurus. Isn’t that exciting?”
“Taurus?” Lia exchanged a nervous look with those around her. “That’s really far from home…”
“The world is in the palm of your hand, don’t you know?” Alpha rounded the table, approached Lia, and placed a hand on her head. “If you don’t adventure and explore now when the opportunity is presenting itself to you, then I assure you that you never will. Isn’t that a boring life?”
* * *
It had been fun. Alpha took them through Aries to a small town where the Ariesian prince was rumored to be temporarily staying. They missed the prince by a day or so but it still was cool and they got to see ley-lines being built first hand—although Rho and Nu looked on with disgust for whatever reason. They traveled to New Ram City next disguised as a travelling circus and even got to see the king and queen in procession.
Half-way into the week, around five new kids joined their ship which was docked in one of the rare rivers that cut through Aries. The new ones were brought in by smaller boat by a tall man that Kent didn’t recognize. All of the kids were curly-haired, tanned, with distinctly sharp Leonian features. Kent didn’t like them one bit. All the Leonians seemed to look down on them. One of them even made a ridiculously annoying announcement as he pointed across at all of them:
“My name is Dominic Gloria-Elegido! I am a star, don’t you see? So you will all show me a wonderful time.”
Kent snorted at this along with several of his friends.
“Dominic and his friends here are special guests,” Alpha explained to them. “Trust me when I say that they will burn brighter in their lives than any of you.”
It was like a knife to the chest. Not special to anyone, Mr. Stefano’s words echoed at the back of Kent’s mind.
* * *
A day or so later Nu returned to the ship with a gashing wound on his chest. He collapsed in front of Kent who was playing a board game with Lia in the mess hall before reaching out to touch Kent’s face and then proceeding to die on the spot.
Lia screamed. Kent held her. The other children ran to them and peered in tearful horror at Nu’s corpse.
It was then that they all witnessed white tendrils leaking out from Nu’s body and rising into the air. The tendrils wisped together to form a circular shape above his corpse before hurtling towards the entrance of the mess hall. Standing there at the threshold was an undisturbed Alpha who held a knife with a glass handle in his hands. The whisping white light entered the blade and swirled inside of the glass container.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Alpha asked, holding up the glass. “You know, anyone can make their vitae into something like this.” When no one responded, he explained, “Nu isn’t dead because he was never alive to begin with, so you needn’t worry. You’ll be meeting him again soon.”
Rho entered the room shortly after and melted away Nu’s body with her mist-like vitae without a second thought.
* * *
A day later a woman with long-black hair and a pale complexion introduced herself as Nu to them while they were all gathered in the mess hall for dinner. Kent didn’t understand it, but she spoke in the same odd, dull monotone as Nu had.
“This is what happens when you bleach your vitae,” Alpha explained to them as he’d rested a hand on Nu’s shoulder. “A life without pain and an extended life… An extended life to carry on a greater purpose and a greater adventure. If you’d like, I can make your vitae just the same.”
A quiet crept into all corners of the room.
He gestured to the Aquarian and Capricornian children who didn’t seem all too surprised by Nu’s appearance. “They’ve done it already themselves.”
“N-no… we shouldn’t…” Lia whispered from beside Kent.
Lia was one of Theta’s favorites—Kent was sure of it. Seeing her so scared while he himself didn’t feel anything close to the feeling brought him a sensation of victory.
Lia shrunk backwards. “Theta says we shouldn’t… he says that we won’t return to the cycle. T-that we’ll become nothingness. I… don’t want to become nothingness. I want to rejoin the cycle with everyone…”
Some of the others also began to mumble fretfully. Kent began to feel nervous himself at the statement. He didn’t want Theta to be disappointed in him.
“‘Being unable to return the cycle’ is an interesting way to put it,” Alpha mused unperturbed. “‘Becoming unbound to the cycle’ is another interpretation. Is there not a more freeing thing than that?”
Silence stretched on.
“You see, if you leave your vitae unbleached, you increase the chances of yourself being forever stuck in the cycle or—worse—being stuck here unchanging forever. Theta explained the vitae cycle to you, hasn’t he?” Alpha reached out and grabbed hold of one of Kent’s friend’s hands. “There’s no freedom in that, is there?” A moment later, he pulled away smiling. “My door will always be open to you.”
That night, Kent spied two of his friends sneaking out of their sleeping quarters and into Alpha’s room. A nervousness began to build in Kent’s stomach at the gravity of their situation.
* * *
Near the end of the week, they were already deep into Taurus. Alpha toured them through the Okör mountains and the formerly rolling plains of Zadok. At the end of Saturday, they arrived in a town called Anyaizeretet, and Alpha began to divide them into groups. Those with bleached vitae—the Aquarians and Capricornians—and those with un-bleached vitae.
“Miss Miraggio, Nu, Rho, and I are going on a day trip with a few of you,” Alpha explained pleasantly. “Only the ones with bleached vitae can come, alright? The rest of you just stay here on the ship. It’s safer that way. I promise.”
Kent felt jealousy bubbling in his chest at this. It wasn’t fair. He wanted to become the most special person to at least one person, and he couldn’t do that just by sitting around but he didn’t want to bleach his vitae either. So, Kent snuck into their traveling group. He went up with them to the near summit of the Bikakönyv mountains and encountered a group of Taurusians working away at a ley-line construction site. Conductor engineers, probably. The engineers gathered there immediately noted their approach, and one of the larger men halted them with a pleasant smile.
“Sorry,” he said in accented Common. “No coming here now. New mandate. No trespassing. Sorry—”
Nu walked up to this man, activated the vitae blade at her hip, and bisected him in one swift movement. The man’s co-workers barely had the time to react before Nu slid her vitae-blade through each them like a knife to butter.
“You’re contributing to the syzygy,” Nu informed him flatly. “So you must die.”
“ELPIS!” one of them managed to cry as they scrambled away. “ELPIS!”
Kent felt his heart stop beating as his ears began to ring. Bile climbed up his stomach, but he kept it down by swallowing again and again. None of the Aquarians or Capricornians reacted. What was wrong with them? The violence reminded him of that cold night in the Twin Cities.
Rho extended her gloved-hand and waved it lazily in the air. White mist poured out from her conductor and swept across the surface of the plateau. And Kent could hear it—hear all of those men and women screech in pain and horror, hear the sound of their flesh bubbling away and dribbling onto the ground, hear the silence that followed.
Rho and Nu bypassed the smoldering corpses as they disintegrated into nothing and approached the hole that opened up at the center of the plateau. Down they descended into the pit riding on the hanging chains with the other children following close behind. Alpha, meanwhile, parted ways with them to head somewhere else. Kent desperately wanted to go with him and leave, but when he turned to Alpha, Alpha stared him down with a smile.
No, he didn’t want to disappoint Alpha. But—no.
Now, all Kent wanted to do was return home to Theta, Miss Morello, the Foxmans, Pi—but he knew they wouldn’t take him back after he’d thrown a fit and ran away. He wasn’t special enough for them to take back in. And so, Kent followed after the larger group, his bare palms becoming torn and rubbed raw by the chains they used to shimmy on down. There were still people down there—Taurusian engineers, all of whom shrieked and ran from Rho and Nu who continued to swipe at them with their conductors. The Taurusian’s blood ran into the pool of vitae that glowed at the corner of the cavern.
Aside from the stragglers who took to hiding around the corners of the cave, there was only one who was spared from the massacre. It was a woman with dark hair and an airy look on her face and who sat with her knees tucked to her chest at the very bank of the vitae pool. Rho and Nu both approached her simultaneously and assessed her.
“Oh, is it just you here right now, Lambda?” Rho asked.
The woman nodded.
“Do you know where Gamma is? When he’ll be back?”
The woman shook her head.
“Do you know where Theta’s proto-conductors are?”
Again the woman shook her head.
One of the Aquarian kids conjured another grand piano beside the pool of vitae, and Alma rested her hands on the keyboards before she sent them flying across its black and white teeth. Another happy, popping tune that shrouded over the shrieks of pain and death as the children slaughtered the rest of the survivors.
“I guess it’s a waiting game then.”
Bikakönyv Mountain Ranges, Taurus
The continent of Signum had changed much over the centuries. This was always Taurus’s first thought when traversing from place to place. Now as she made her way up the mountain range of Bikakönyv, she thought the same but not in a morose way. It was quite pleasantly nostalgic. Her vacation with her family here was still a warm memory.
Much to her surprise, once she neared the entrance of Lamendos, she found its entry hole surrounded by v-ehicles, unconnected insulation tubes stacked up on top of each other, and many conductor generators. Scattered amongst all the equipment were stray pieces of clothing.
“Huh…? Ley-line construction…?”
Ah—she should have looked into what was happening here—the news—before coming. Why hadn’t she? It was her own stubbornness. She blamed that much on her mother and father, but that was stubbornness in itself.
These thoughts soon left her as the sound of a piano reached her ears. It was coming up from the entrance of Lamendos. As she came near to it, she was met with the stench of iron. Eyes narrowing, she reached the edge of the hole and peered down. Immediately, she locked eyes with a whimpering older man who was climbing up one of the many chains hooked to the edge of the entrance. He was only half a meter away, but his face was drenched in sweat and he was panting heavily. His lower left leg was wrapped tightly around the chain while his right leg looked as if it had been put through a meat grinder.
“H-Help me…” the man wailed in Taurusian as he reached out a trembling hand for her. “Please, help…”
Taurus regarded him for a moment impassively. So pitiful. She doubted he’d survive his wounds. A fortress would do nothing for him.
“Please… my daughter…” His eyes were wide and mad. “My wife… I have to get back to them.”
Csilla reached out her hand immediately and wrapped hers around his. An expression of pure relief crossed his face before it crumbled into one of agony. Before she could register what was happening, a white mist began to curl up his leg to his abdomen to his face and then to his reaching arm from below. In a painfully slow fashion, his body melted and then disintegrated into nothing leaving only his clothes which tumbled to the ground below in a heap. The mist itself continued upwards, brushing against Csilla’s still extended hand.
Taurus winced at the flare of pain that resulted, pulled her hand back, and stumbled away from the edge. She cradled her hand as she felt it boil but wrung it out with a grimace. Her drooping, melting flesh burned a dark russet before coming back together to form her functioning hand.
Rho—no, Bolina. This was their conducting. So, Bolina was here now too? Rho was working with Gamma? Who else was papa—Gamma—working with now? It had to end. They were disrupting the syzygy.
Without hesitation, Taurus charged forward, leapt down into the hole, and fell, fell, fell—
—crack! Whether that was the sound of the earth beneath her or her bones cracking, Taurus didn’t know. Perhaps, it was both. It didn’t matter.
The air was now clouded with a thick smog of dirt and debris from her landing, and it seemed to temporarily combat the white mist swirling around the cavern. Through the haze, Taurus could see children running around above corpses. A pale woman was playing the piano by the vitae pool in the corner of the cavern.
“Taurus…?” A voice floated down from above. “Is that… Taurus?”
Taurus looked up to find three figures resting on the pillars emerging from the vitae. Three women. One with long black hair and a deactivated vitae blade at their side and two others wearing gloved conductors. One of the ones wearing a glove-conductor had a glazed-look in their eye.
“Where is Gamma? Where is Pothos?” Taurus demanded.
“Pothos!” One of the gloved-wearing women—the one who looked alert—clapped. “I presumably haven’t heard those names spoken in a long time! Although it just feels like a couple of months ago to me. Funny how that works.” She leaned forward and squinted down at Taurus. “My goodness. The resemblance is uncanny… You look just like how Gamma looks now. Are you really blood-related…? How ironic…”
Rho, gauging by the demeanor, Taurus identified.
She didn’t bother answering her. Those kinds of words used to bring her some form of embarrassment in the past, but they were hollow words now.
That aside, if Rho was here, then…
Taurus glanced at the other two women standing beside her. The one with the vitae blade was most likely Nu—Soteria—since Nu was a Projector and was always by Rho’s side. The last one then…?
“We’re not working with Gamma,” Rho replied casually. “Delta’s working with Gamma though. I bet things get steamy here because of that.”
“I was actually looking for them both—well, I was looking for Theta’s proto-conductors that they stashed here somewhere.” Rho shrugged. “They’ll be back soon though even if they know we’re here.” She pointed to the unidentified, airy woman beside her. “They have to come back for their best healer.”
Lambda, Taurus realized. Why did she look so off like that?
Rho reached over and plucked a chain that was hanging from Lambda’s neck. A resistor was dangling from it. “Gamma and the bunch still use that old method of keeping the resistor close to the body, so you can have someone just transfer it to the closest available host-corpse-thing right after you kick the bucket. It only really works if you have a partner with you at all times though. So old-fashioned.”
Csilla’s heart fell at the former revelation, but she still had something to do here. She surveyed the corpses around her and reached her final decision. This could not be allowed. “So you’re working with Theta—”—though it was hard to imagine Theta would be for something like this. Then again, he’d been incorrectly initiated into that crime lord.
“Nope!” Rho popped before flinging out her gloved hand.
Taurus didn’t move as a torrent of white mist descended upon her. The white clouds ghosted her skin, burned through her flesh, and boiled her eyeballs in their sockets. Muscle fiber melting into muscle fiber, crumbling bone.
It felt all too familiar. She had felt like this when she’d been pushed into the reservoirs in Ophiuchus. The only difference was that in the end after this, she was still to remain as herself.
Waving the misty cloud aside, Taurus stepped forward out into the open.
“Ah, you’re as stubborn as always.” Rho sighed before clapping her hands—the sound cutting sharply above the piano tune.
Several of the children who had been running around swiveled to Taurus at the sound. The older ones—the ones who looked around her own age, approached her swiftly and pulled out various conductor apparatuses. How pitiful. Converts. Indoctrinated. Brainwashed.
The girl closest to Taurus lifted a gloved-hand at Taurus. Taurus met the girl’s gaze head on before an ear-piercing pain shot through her own temple. The vibration felt like it was boiling her brain alive. The ground beneath her feet trembled with the unseen force as it shook through every fiber in her body. The piano music stopped abruptly as the shaking continued.
With difficulty, Taurus surveyed her surroundings as she slid to her knees. The children—minus one boy who was keeled over—all stared at her unaffected. Rho, Nu, and Lambda remained unaffected too as they watched her from their perch. The pianist was doubled over on the floor, explaining the lack of music.
Specialists. Specialist children. Children with vitae bleached white. Less vitae available for the syzygy. Where were they getting these children? What were they planning?
Taurus struggled through the agony and barely managed to stagger back up to a stand. And then suddenly—just like that—the shaking pains dissipated. Upon looking up, Taurus found that the Specialist girl had been pushed aside and was now being pinned down by another figure. A woman. Brown hair tamed by a bun. Sharp hazel eyes. A strong back—
Mama? Csilla realized with fleeting relief and joy before her eyes narrowed. What was she doing here?
Csilla shook her head and leapt at one of the boys who had started to turn towards her mother with an ignited blade of white vitae. As she neared the boy, she swiveled around, hardened the vitae at her feet, and hooked him in the abdomen with the point of her shoe. In the split second that her foot burrowed its way into his gut, Csilla saw blood dribble from the boy’s mouth. A moment afterwards, the boy went flying across the cavern and cracked against the far wall. He then slumped to the ground motionless.
“Csilla, stop! They’re children, Csilla! They don’t know what they’re doing!”
At her mother’s cry, Csilla felt her cheeks burn with shame. That was right, wasn’t it? She had to be a fortress for all of these pitiful people—at least until the syzygy rang its final toll. And—she couldn’t let her mother see her like this. No, no, no.
As one of the other children charged at her mother again with a glove sparking with white flame, Csilla ran forward and this time swept her feet beneath the child’s. The child fell backwards but grabbed hold of Csilla’s leg. The continual white flames ate away at Csilla’s skin causing her to reflexively jerk her foot away, harden the vitae over it, and bring it down. Before she could bring her foot down fully, however, a sharp searing pain tore through her knee. Upon looking down, she found that her lower leg had been severed and now flopped uselessly on the ground beside her.
“Csilla!” her mother cried again.
Taurus turned and found Nu standing on top of the pillar with a grimace and with her hand still extended from when she’d presumably thrown the blade.
“You harm children not only through your corrupted baptisms and conductors,” Nu muttered, eyes narrowing, “but now you’re also doing it with your own hands?”
“You’re a fool, Nu. Always a follower,” Taurus returned. “Look at what you’ve done to these children and what you’ve asked them to do—”
“We saved them.”
“Csilla…” Her mother whispered. “Your leg—”
But Taurus’s lower leg was already beginning to glow dark russet. It slinked forward along the ground before coming to her and reattaching itself to her body.
Csilla glanced at her mother whose eyes were wide with horror at the sight. She felt her cheeks flush with shame, and then glanced backwards to find that Nu had descended the pillar and was now approaching her, vitae blade in hand.
Nu charged forward with a roar. Taurus easily dodged the first ten swipes of the woman’s blade, although the twelfth swipe scored through her arm, nearly severing it at the elbow. It reattached a second afterwards, and in the moment of distraction that the process brought, Taurus took the opportune moment to deliver a vitae-coated kick to Nu’s chest that sent her flying back into one of the pillars.
“Nu…” Rho sighed as the pillar beside her sank into the pool from the impact. “Don’t be stupid…”
Nu slid onto one of the toppled pillars but picked herself up a moment after. Shaking herself, she crossed the pillar over the vitae pool and limped back onto solid ground. Blade still in hand.
Taurus approached the ELPIS leader slowly, but stopped short when one of the children lunged at her. Before she had to deal with the child herself, however, Elizabeta tackled them aside and pinned them down. Csilla stared at her mother in surprise and was startled to find something other than disgust in the woman’s eyes. Csilla shook herself and continued to Nu’s side.
Nu had no sunken down to a kneel before the vitae pool and sent Taurus a venomously glare.
“Nu, don’t be stupid.” Taurus frowned, grabbing the woman’s arm once she’d reached her side.
“You’re the ones who are stupid,” Nu informed her flatly. “Look at you, walking around with your head held high and calling yourself the Saint of the Fortress when you’re pushing the syzygy forward. How can you serve as a fortress when you’re breaking down the foundation—”
Taurus crushed the woman’s arm in her vitae-coated hands without a second thought. The woman didn’t flinch as expected. Instead, the woman whipped out her conducting blade and severed her own arm with it before sending Taurus back with a kick. Taurus was left righting herself and holding the lower half of the woman’s arm, while the woman limped away back to the pillars.
The smell of burnt flesh lingered.
“Nu!” Rho tisked from above them. “You’re going to die again if you keep doing that! You’ve died too many times already!”
“Lambda,” Nu called out to the other woman beside Rho. “Please.”
Lambda swayed from side-to-side hesitantly before slowly descending the pillar. Taurus narrowed her eyes at this and stormed towards them but stopped short as she glanced at her mother who was now being surrounded by the children.
Foolish woman! What did she even plan to do by coming here?
No, it was mean and wrong to call her mother foolish.
“All you’re doing is prolonging the inevitable,” Taurus drew mechanically. Her gaze flicked from her mother to the ELPIS leaders, to Lambda who had finally made it down to ground-level and who was now regenerating Nu’s arm with her glowing white conducting glove. “You both—”
A violent wind suddenly tore through the entire cavern. A pale tangerine glow emitted from the top of the pillar, and a figure suddenly emerged from behind Rho there. A tall figure with familiar broad shoulders wearing glasses with a horn-rimmed frame.
“Izsak!” her mother called from behind.
Csilla’s heart soared in her chest but then crumpled as her eyes locked onto the familiar white snake tattoo crawling half-way up the man’s face. Her mother must have seen it too, because Csilla heard her gasp audibly in anguish.
“Oh, there you are, Gamma!” Rho beamed, throwing up a hand in greeting. “We were looking—”
Before she could finish, Gamma kicked her hard in the gut and sent her flying to the ground and crashing down into the children that were surrounding Csilla’s mother.
Rho popped up a second later with her arm bent at an odd angle, but she continued to offer Gamma a salute. “We were just swinging hoping to get our hands on some more of Theta’s proto-conductors.”
“What did you do to all of the resistors? Where is Alpha?” Gamma asked thickly.
Csilla’s heart hammered at the sound of his voice. It had been almost an entire year since she’d heard it whispering to her good night wishes.
“You’re not going to ask us what we’re planning?” Rho sighed. “This is why we went with Alpha instead of you or Theta. You guys are always too…”
Nu swiveled out her vitae blade and pressed it to Lambda’s neck. When Gamma remained unreactive, she slid the blade to the chain on Lambda’s neck and melted away the resistor hanging there in one fell swoop. Then, Nu brought her blade back to Lambda’s throat.
“Are you stupid…?” Gamma asked, eyes narrowing. “Lambda is our best healer. There is no other like her.”
A pit of jealousy burned at Csilla’s stomach at those words because those were the words her father once said about her.
“Your—our—best healer for the proto-conductors.” Rho extended her hand as Nu dragged Lambda over to her side.
Csilla couldn’t pay them any mind because her gaze was focused solely on Gamma. She knew her mother was just behind her, but her father…? No, no, no. Pitiful.
Rho snapped her fingers and pointed to one of the boys she’d knocked down during her fall. “Pip, it’s your time to shine!”
The boy’s eyes brightened immediately, and he scrambled up to his feet before holding out his gloved-hands. The central insulation tubes there began to glow a burning white that soon consumed the boy’s entire hands.
“Are you ready to get blasted to hell and back?” Rho called out cheerfully. “Because that’s what’s going to happen to all of us—Lambda included—if we don’t get those proto-conductors. Well, you’ll escape of course since you have them already, but…”
Gamma stared her down, before his attention shifted to Csilla’s mother. His eyes widened a fraction before his gaze drifted to Csilla. Csilla held the man’s gaze for what felt like an eternity—searching for something, anything—before he broke it off and dug into his coat pocket. He pulled out several objects and threw them across the divide at Rho. The proto-conductors.
“Your mistakes will catch up to you,” was all he said.
Rho leapt up and caught the proto-conductors with her good hand. “Thanks, Gamma! I knew we could rely on you!” She nodded at Nu who then shoved Lambda forward onto the ground. Without skipping a beat, Rho splashed some of the black liquid onto the ground from the proto-conductor, while Nu went over to the pool and retrieved the pianist who was still unconscious by the vitae bank.
“Come,” Nu called out to the surrounding children as the gate opened by Rho’s feet. The children gathered around her and proceeded to follow her into the glowing gate.
“Oh, I totally forgot to say this, but here’s a theatrical, ominous message right before we part ways.” Rho waved as she sank down into the faintly pulsating portal with them. “Ophiuchus will fall in a couple of months and the true Ophiuchus will rise from its ashes—or something.” She waved. “Now, bye-bye! See you when Ophiuchus falls!”
With that, the glow from the child’s—Pip’s—conductor expanded outwards in an all-consuming light.
Elizabeta had heard it. She hadn’t imagined it. Csilla had cried out that word as soon as Izsak had appeared on top of that pillar. She was still Csilla, and Elizabeta felt indescribable relief at the confirmation. But Izsak—she’d held his gaze for the briefest of seconds when he’d first arrived in Lamendos, but she couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t find anything familiar in his gaze. But he had kept the photograph with him, so she had to be wrong. She had to be.
When the ELPIS child Pip started to activate what Elizabeta assumed was an explosive conductor, she tried to shake him to turn it off, but it was no use. He held to it steadfastly and curled his body around it; soon he was consumed by the glow. Realizing what was to come, Elizabeta whipped around and tried to search for anyone she could save, but the ELPIS leaders and the children who’d come with them had already disappeared through the gate—all except one who was passed out on the ground to her left. The ELPIS woman called Lambda was also passed out on the ground but…
Gritting her teeth and turning away from Lambda, Elizabeta picked the boy up and as she darted to Csilla who remained frozen in place a step or so ahead of her. She shook her gently, heart hammering— “Csilla, we have to go!” She looked up to the pillars where her husband had been standing just a moment earlier, but found it empty. When she turned back to Csilla, she found that Csilla was staring over her shoulder. Elizabeta followed her gaze and registered Izsak holding Lambda in his arms.
Izsak gazed at them with an unreadable expression. Elizabeta opened her mouth, prepared to say something, but the man flipped out a proto-conductor and tapped it against the black-stained ground.
“Comientzo, Leo” he said into the gate.
With that, he sank into the light and disappeared, leaving them all by themselves. In the place where he once stood, the light from the explosive conductor burst out brightly.
Swallowing a cry, Elizabeta took the boy off her back and threw herself around him and Csilla as she squeezed her eyes shut. The heat of the explosion seared into her back, and she knew nothing more.
* * *
When Elizabeta stirred into consciousness again, she found that she was surrounded by slabs of stone and rubble. Faint light was pouring down from a narrow hole above her, but other than that, all that surrounded her was rock, rock, rock. It didn’t take her long to realize that she had been buried under the rubble of the explosion. But how in the world did she survive that?
After assessing herself for injuries and finding none, Elizabeta slowly pushed herself up only to find that there was something small and wet on top of her. A body. Barely human in shape with an unidentifiable face, but up close Elizabeta immediately knew who it was.
“N-No, C-Csilla…” Elizabeta cradled her daughter’s body with shaking hands. “Csilla—”
Csilla had thrown herself over them to protect them? How…? Why—
“Csilla!” Elizabeta cried.
No, hysterics. Calm down. Hysterics didn’t help anyone.
Subsiding her trembles, Elizabeta pulled out her glove-conductors from her pocket and put them on as her mind raced. She could put Csilla back together somehow. Yes. Just like back on the field during the war. Just like in the Medical Department. Everything reattached. Vitae particle to vitae particle. Under duress—
Elizabeta shook her head, and her thoughts fell back into place. Then she realized that the muscles in her daughter’s disfigured face were beginning to glow a dark russet color. Just like it had done earlier. Just like Gabrielle and Alice had said that Scorpio’s vitae had done when his head had been blown off.
In other words, Csilla was healing. The sight of it still made Elizabeta nauseous. The idea that her darling daughter was in any sort of state of injury—even if it could heal—wrenched at her chest. And even if it could heal, Csilla could still feel it, couldn’t she?
Oh, she was a failure of a mother.
A whimpering sound drew Elizabeta’s attention away. She turned to find a small body—a boy—tucked beside her. A profusely bleeding gash ran diagonally across his face. At the rate of the bleeding, he’d die within the next fifteen minutes if the wound wasn’t sealed. Gingerly, she put Csilla’s body to the side and turned to the boy. She placed a hand to his face. “Are you okay?”
“It hurts…” the boy whimpered.
Okay. He was still cognizant.
“What’s your name?”
“I-I’m K-Kent…” the boy sniffled. “I’m Kent…” He sobbed. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I want to see Theta.”
Theta? The one Gabrielle and Alice had worked with. The one they kept mentioning. The one who had taken the photograph off from Gamma. Gamma—who wasn’t working with this Rho or Lambda. Rho and Lambda, were both not working with Theta, but with Alpha…? In-fighting.
Shaking the confusing thought aside, Elizabeta hovered her hands over the gash on the boy’s face then paused. Was his vitae bleached? Like Jericho’s? Were his injuries extraneously difficult to heal? Could she manage it? Of course she could.
She activated her conductor causing it to bleed out a caramel light that caused the boy’s cheek to glow the same. Much to her relief, the boy’s vitae didn’t appear to be resisting and so she quickly sealed his wound. The boy’s whimpering quieted after the fact, and he was left sniffling. Elizabeta brushed back his hair before turning around to her daughter again whose face and body was now recognizably human.
“Oh, Csilla…” Elizabeta stroked her daughter’s face as it slowly came together. “Csilla…”
Even now, she didn’t see a monster, a deity beyond her comprehension, a monument to be worshiped and feared, nor a harbinger. All she saw was Wtorek Csilla. Csilla. Her and Izsak’s little star. It was all she had left.
Csilla’s eyes fluttered open and she took in a deep breath.
“Csilla!” Elizabeta let out a breath in turn.
Csilla looked over at her and stared, before her gaze darkened almost frighteningly then collapsed into itself. “Why did you come? Why did you come? Why did you have to come?!” She pulled away from Elizabeta, eyes wide. “You’re a fool for coming.”
Elizabeta lifted her hands. “Csilla. Don’t be rude.” She shook her head. “You’re my daughter. You ran away without saying anything. Why would you do that? I was worried sick—”
Csilla stared. “Don’t you get it? I’m the Saint of the Fortress. I’m a saint candidate. I am Taurus. Like Leona, like Talib, like Flannery, like—”
“You’re a failed saint candidate from what I understand,” Elizabeta interjected.
Csilla’s stony expression melted into shame and her cheeks burned red. The sight of it was a relief despite the relief itself being a form of cruelty.
Elizabeta pressed her hand to her face and sighed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. But… You…” Despite practicing what she had been planning to say over and over again these past months, her mind couldn’t connect the words together.
Elizabeta’s heart hammered at the word.
“—don’t you get it…? I’m more Taurus than I am Csilla. Just like how Talib is more Scorpio than Talib.”
“Look. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re more Taurus than Csilla.” Elizabeta frowned. “As long as there is a drop of Csilla in you, then you are my daughter. And you can’t go running away without saying anything. If there’s something wrong, you have to tell me so I can help you… I… I-I can’t…” She felt her composure fracturing. “Your father… I can’t… If you go too…” She buried her face with her hand before she could stop herself as months of anguish, waiting, and tension rolled off of her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we put you through the ceremony. We should’ve known. We should’ve learned more.” A sob tore from her throat. “Oh… Izsak… Csilla…” And she began to weep uncontrollably.
After what seemed like hours, a hand pried Elizabeta’s hand away from her face.
“It’s not your fault…” Csilla murmured, holding her hand still. Her expression was sympathetic, but distant. “You didn’t know… They never do…” Her gaze lowered. “We were meant to fortress you and serve as means of guidance while you all build your own path, but we’re all pitiful. We can’t accept our defeat.”
Elizabeta stared up at her in confusion as Csilla slowly rose to an unsteady stand.
“I’m not your responsibility any longer, Wtorek Elizabeta.” Csilla looked upwards to the small opening in the rubble. “I hope you find in peace in this. You should return to Ophiuchus before…”
Elizabeta felt her heart seize in her chest and her stomach twist into knots. To be comforted by one’s own child was an embarrassment to a parent. And to have a child leave before they even reached adulthood…?
Csilla had not even shed a single tear here, Elizabeta realized next. Apathy? Strength? Like a fortress? Perhaps. No, no, no—this was an act. Elizabeta knew. She knew because she’d had to deal with this type of behavior many times before. Whenever Csilla had been upset, she’d always hide it behind a facade of aloofness, distance, and nonchalance—she was so stubborn that she’d once kept up the act for two weeks after Izsak had eaten the last slice of her favorite cheesecake.
“Wait—” Elizabeta dug into her coat and pulled out the photograph of all three of them together. She held it out to Csilla who turned to her slightly. When her daughter didn’t move to take it, Elizabeta quickly forced it into her hands.
Csilla stared at the photo in confusion.
“Gamma had this in his pocket. A man named Theta took this from him only a couple months ago during the Week of Blindness in Capricorn,” Elizabeta explained. “Izsak—your papa—could be like Francis Foxman, like Theta—”
“He could still be in there.”
Csilla dropped her hands to her side, but she didn’t drop the photograph. “Why are you so stubborn…? Why do you keep hoping…?”
“Only people who give up easily call it stubbornness,” Elizabeta said, just as she’d told Csilla many times before. “It’s called ‘not giving up.’ And I know that you’re not the type to give up easily, Csilla.” She paused and then drew, “You’re still looking for Izsak—papa—aren’t you? I am too. After we find him, we can finally take that vacation and go to Pisces—Hapaira—like he’s always wanted. You can have your favorite cheesecake while your father and I drink our favorite wine. Maybe we’ll even go to see a water show while we’re there. You’ve both always wanted to see one, right? I don’t think he’ll like how popular you’ll be with the boys there, but I’ll have a word with him—”
An unmistakable sniffle cut Elizabeta off short. When she looked up, she found Csilla staring at her through glassy eyes.
Elizabeta held out her arms. “Csilla… You’re a good girl. I don’t blame you for anything. You’re trying your best, but you don’t have to be a fortress for me or for anyone. You don’t have to even be a fortress for yourself. Honey… I love you, okay?”
Csilla whimpered, took several steps backwards then forwards, before throwing and collapsed into Elizabeta’s arms. “Mama! I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I tried to change something, but I couldn’t. I failed. I keep failing. We keep failing. I just want everything to go back to the way it was before. I miss papa. I miss Talib. I miss everyone. I miss my friends in school. I hate this! I-I’m sorry…”
Elizabeta held Csilla tightly as she let out a quiet sigh. “Syzygy, Ophiuchus, Saint Candidates, True Conductors, and ELPIS—it doesn’t matter. We’ll find him together.”
Elizabeta glanced up at the hole above them and found the night sky that was splattered with tiny twinkling stars. One blazed brighter than the others. A star of hope.