24.2: The Swindler & Candidate in Blanca Light

Re-cap:

Cadence continues her search for the children that were swept away by Alpha, Rho, and Nu. During her search accompanied by Francis, Fortuna, and Maximallian, she encounters another ELPIS Leader named Epsilon who was initiated into Ambrose Campana. Epsilon has the ability to extract the memories stored in vitae and pass it onto others. Their search so far has been fruitless with only an odd poem serving as a clue.

In the background, Francis still remains unaware that the Romano family ships that Alpha stole were full of chlorowheat that his brothers were shipping for the Romanos. Chlorowheat itself continues its circulation.

(      )

“Where’s Ambrose?”

Cadence had difficulty tearing her eyes away from the book in her hands. The novel was some fairy tale about some silk-weaver princess being romanced by a common cowherd traveling through her countryside. The reading level was a bit harder than what Cadence was normally used to but it wasn’t so bad. Why in the world Francis had recommended it—she had no clue. He called it more of a tragedy than a romance and ‘a good teacher in all matters of love,’ but Cadence couldn’t quite see his perspective yet. That aside, she’d been knee-deep in a scene where things were getting steamy between the two main characters, so—needless to say—having an image of Ambrose pop up in the middle of the imagined scene was not the greatest.

“Huh…?”

Cadence looked up to find a crossed-arm Fortuna Romano standing in front of her. Mateo was attached to her hip. While Mateo was grinning from ear-to-ear for the first time since the others had been taken, Fortuna’s browns were knitted. 

“How can you act so relaxed with all of this?” Fortuna’s voice cut razor thin. “I’ve never understood that about you.”

“Ya think I’m relaxin’?” Cadence chortled. “I’m just destressin’ from our meetin’ earlier.”

And what a stressful meeting that was. Following Olive’s lovely escapade in Zhūshā Chéng paired with First Chairman of the Medical Department Hårek revealing that Ophiuchus was very aware of chlorowheat popping up in indiscriminate places, Cadence decided it was time to spill the metaphorical beans. After touching point with Atienna and Werner, she’d relayed the peacekeepers’ knowledge of chlorowheat and chlorowheat’s spread into Sagittarius, Capricorn, and Aquarius.

The grim silence that fell swiftly over the private meeting attended by the Romano capos, Carl, and Allen was tense to say the least. Of course, she’d received looks of disapproval for keeping the information to herself, but she figured she could live with their disappointment. Then, after some more tension, Cavallo proposed that the Romanos pull out of the search effort. Too much risk, he said before whipping out an article that read—

AQUARIANS DISCOVERED TRESPASSING IN CANCERIAN DUCHESS RESIDENCE

CANCERIAN GOVERNMENT DEMANDS INVESTIGATION AND RESPONSE FROM AQUARIAN GOVERNMENT. ACCUSATION OF SPIES. OPHIUCHUS’S INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS DIVISION CALLED IN.

Profit appearing elsewhere, he added. People were going to be all over modified-conductors soon, he insisted. It was time to return to the original business.

Needless to say, Carl nearly flipped the table over on him. Fortuna didn’t seem to fancy the idea much either, since she’d spent the entire time frowning at Cavallo. Cadence waited for the right moment to step in and highlight how dangerous Scorpio was and added some slightly dramatic hand-waving paired with some sincere expressions of fear. When Cavallo alone still didn’t budge, Cadence brought up the old possibility of convincing Francis to have Epsilon marry Fortuna thereby finally uniting the Romano and Campana Family. This lure, Cavallo swallowed whole. It was what he wanted in the beginning, after all. Best to play with known cards.

In present time, Cadence tapped her book on her head as she pulled out of the memory. She arched a brow at Fortuna who was still standing in front of her, then asked, “I mean, things are in good books on your end, ain’t they? If ya don’t get the chlorowheat, ya can still wipe your hands clean and marry Epsi and dance in the metaphorical Campana inheritance.”

Epsi, oh, Epsi—though Fortuna kept referring to him as ‘Epsilon’. Even if Fortuna didn’t blatantly show it, it was clear that she had some sort of attachment to the Campana. Cadence frankly didn’t see Ambrose’s charm but she supposed that was fair since Fortuna’d never seen Alma’s charm either. 

“So how exactly are you going to convince Ambrose to accept this proposal?” Fortuna asked, glancing down at Mateo. “I don’t have any doubts on your ability which is why I argued for you against the others, but my patience is another story.” She sighed. “Where are Pi and Maximallian? I don’t have time to be watching over this child.”

 “Resting probably. On break?” Cadence shrugged. “And Epsi—he’s probably with Francis or somethin’.” 

Fortuna’s eyes narrowed.

“It’s Francis, Fortuna. Besides, it’s good Francis is stretchin’ out and hangin’ with people other than just Pi and the kids.”

“Other people? Like that peacekeeper of yours?” Fortuna arched a brow. “The odd one?” Her eyes narrowed. “The one who you said had bleached vitae—”

“Hey. The detective’s good.” Cadence felt a downwards tug on her lips. “That really what’s eatin’ ya up?”

“Yes, well, I get nervous whenever Francis’s around other ELPIS members,” Fortuna replied thickly. “Former or not. I’m not sure if you’ve forgotten already, but I spent almost an entire month in this place.”

Cadence tapped her book on her knee in thought. “What? Ya… wanna talk about it?”

Fortuna arched a brow. “What?” 

“Ya know. About what happened back then. Or in general.”

Fortuna’s brows knitted. “What. Are you sharing your mind with a psychologist now?”

“The exact opposite actually,” Cadence noted nonchalantly. “If anything, we could use one, but there’s an 80-20 chance that Doctor Scorpio’s just gonna show up with a bouquet of flowers … not a great date.” She cleared her throat at Fortuna’s arched brow and pressed, “I mean, when’s the last time we sat down and talked, Fortuna?”

“When we were kids and had time to talk about things that didn’t matter.”

Cadence gestured to the open seat on the sofa beside her. Begrudgingly, Fortuna sat down next to her while balancing Mateo precariously on her lap. Mateo immediately shimmied his way over to Cadence’s lap instead. The favorite was clear. Fortuna startlingly looked a bit bothered by the fact.

“If ya can’t find Pi and Max, ya could always ring in ‘Tilda to have her watch over him,” Cadence suggested before trying, “She reminds me of you when you were younger. ‘Tilda, I mean.”

“Except she’s built her empire with her own two hands,” Fortuna replied, studying Mateo. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed that this power was handed to me. There’s no point in being ashamed.”

What mattered was how you used it, right? At least, that was what Olive told Claire in Zhūshā Cheng.

 “I’ll certainly make it my own and use it.” Fortuna leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Money and power. Without them, you have nothing. You’re just an ant beneath someone else’s domineering boot. That’s the rule in the city.” She peered at Cadence. “But it’s like you, Allen, Carl, and Francis have forgotten about it. You and Francis especially. And who knows what Nico is doing. It’s irritating.” She looked away. “Ambrose was the only one who really understood it, but now.”

Ah, so that was what it was.

“‘Ey, I’m still all about money. Carl and Al pay a decent cens and I don’t gotta pay any rent. Livin’ rent free in this place. It’s just that what I want ta do with all that money—no power here unfortunately—is a bit different from before.”

Fortuna’s gaze trailed down to Mateo. “The more things that you have, the more you have to lose.”

“Good thing I don’t have anything.” Cadence chortled.

Fortuna frowned slightly at this before she scrutinized Mateo. “I’m assuming your investment is here, then? Investing in children—whether they’re your blood children or not—is a high gamble.”

“And you?”

“I’m the result of the rare gamble turning out well, although this situation is vexing. Everything could slip through my fingers just like that.” Her eyes narrowed before she looked away from Mateo. “I have to admit that I do feel a bit nostalgic sometimes—but it’s a pointless feeling.” She paused. “I always thought it was me, Carl, and Allen that changed the most over the years, but it was really you, Nico, and Francis.” After a beat, she said, “Since I’m humoring you right now, I’ll just add that I think what you’re doing with the children is stupid… but I guess it’s also admirable.

Cadence chortled. “Your compliments warm my heart.”

“All of our childish stupidity back then wasn’t so bad either,” Fortuna added as if an afterthought. “Though with how things are now, it feels like we’re coming full circle.” 

“Yeah…” 

* * *

Francis wasn’t answering Cadence’s requests when she used his proto-conductor to hop gates, so she ended up traversing through some backwater port in Pisces, a snowy tundra in Aquarius, and a vineyard in the countryside of Gemini before finally making it to where she wanted to go.

Upon finally entering the room she was now deeming as ‘Francis’s study’ for the lack of a better word, she found Epsilon and Francis together as expected leaning together against a glass table. Carl had convinced Francis to put it in the room months ago. What Cadence did not expect was finding Epsilon pressing his glowing glove conductor against Francis’s temple.

“Francis…?” Cadence whispered faintly. 

Francis’s closed eyes fluttered open slowly, and he turned to look at her with glassy eyes as if he was waking from a dream.

Cadence recognized that look. She’d seen it from time-to-time in the very back of the gambling dens of the city, back in those places where morrowheat was casually passed around from person to person like a bottle of wine. She’d seen it for the first time when she was just about nine years old. Right after her mother and father were gifted their first free trial run of morrowheat by a charming dealer. 

“Cadence,” Francis greeted her calmly, stirring her from the memory.

Cadence forced a chuckle as she approached the two men. “What are ya doin’ here with Epsi? Fortuna’s lookin’ everywhere for the guy.” 

Epsilon pointed to his face as a smile spit across it. “Me? The pretty, unhappy one? She’s quite young—that one. I guess”

Saints. Seeing Ambrose all giddy, happy, and Maria-like was a bit odd. Cadence was never one to judge, but it was definitely weirder than the weirdest thing she’d experienced. Which was saying something. Probably would make a lot more people comfortable if his features were just transmuted to look different or something. Nico could probably do it. He’d have a hoot and a holler maybe if he saw Ambrose like this. Nico—no. Bah. 

Cadence didn’t want to think about Nico right now. 

Francis stared through her for a beat before responding, “Epsilon was merely showing me something.” 

“Showin’ ya something?” Cadence tried in a casual tone. No need to make things dramatic. “Well, can I see too?”

“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Francis informed her flatly.

Okay. Looked like he was in one of his gloomier moods again.

“Well, can I talk ta ya in private?”

Francis seemed to consider it before nodding at Epsilon. The latter departed the room through a gate with a wave and muttered under his breath about meeting Leo again. Poor bastard. 

“Ya remember way back when we were kids, Francis?” Cadence asked as she took Epsilon’s seat.

“Relatively speaking, it wasn’t too long ago that we were children,” Francis reasoned. “Though, I suppose in a sense it feels like it’s been eighty some years.” 

“Eh, time is relative.” Cadence shrugged. “Anyways, remember back when we were around nine or somethin’—right around when I cut my hair short—you, me, Nic, and Fortuna spent the night under the bridge? I think Carl and Allen got into a fight and accidentally locked us outta the warehouse.”

“…Oh yeah.” Francis chuckled. Musically. “It was cold as hell, but we thought it’d be a good idea to sleep beneath the v-lights. Some unreproducible logic there. We all got sick after that. Al was pissed.”  

“Yeah, don’t remember that sick bit since I was fevered outta my mind. But before that. Under the bridge. We were talkin’ about growin’ up and romance. That was when ya were a bachelor for life or somethin’.” 

Francis’s expression became cloudy. 

“We all made this weird promise compromise thing, do ya remember?” Cadence continued quickly. “If we weren’t tied down by the time we were in our late twenties, we’d marry off ta each other. Me off with Nico since we were in sync. You and Fortuna ta increase profit. A business arrangement.”

His gaze sharpened. “What are you trying to get at, Cadence?”

“Epsilon. Fortuna. Married. The Campanas and Romanos joined.”

Francis opened his mouth.

Cadence held up a finger. “More guys on the ground helpin’ us to rake through for the kids. I mean, we’re already shackled down to searchin’ at night ta try ta avoid Scorpio but we’re barely makin’ any progress especially since ya haven’t gotten any luck with that poem.”

Now Francis looked even more morose than before, but Cadence waited. After a beat, the man placed a hand on his chin. “Expanding the search for the children… It’s dangerous to send so many out with Scorpio’s eyes everywhere… All it takes is one of our own to become infected…”

“I put ‘em in transmutations with proto-conductors just like I’ve been doin’ with us. Have them go through a checkpoint with Lita when they get back. Some extra steps but worth the investment, no?”

Francis ruminated. “I feel uncertain about this lie to Epsilon still… Taking advantage of him even further is…” He closed his eyes briefly. “But I do see the logic behind it. I will speak with him regarding the matter. I’m sure Maria can be even more convincing than I.” His face fell. Again. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be doing this with Epsilon when we still haven’t even gotten a clue where the kids are…”

“And what’s ‘this’ anyways?” Cadence pressed. “What was Epsi showin’ ya?”

“He was showing me better times,” Francis admitted after a pause. “He was with the both of us frequently back then—both Omicron and I—so he was showing me those warmer instances. It eases the emptiness left behind in Omicron’s absence.” 

Cadence felt her stomach twist into knots as memories from back when she’d still been living in that small apartment flat with her mother and mother flooded her mind. “Hey, hey, Francis, I don’t say this enough—well, at all—but you, Carl, and Allen are like—”

“You view us as family. Yes, you told me on top of the Dioscuri on that night. Maria reminded me of the fact once again rather recently.”

Cadence arched a brow, internally relieved at the shift in conversation. “Yeah, and ya said ‘poor thing.’ What was that about?” 

“It was in reference to how people seek shelter and family outside of their blood family. The first social bond formed is one that is not carefully protected and kept.” Francis mumbled something into his hand. “Is it not customary for you to seek shelter with your blood family first and foremost?”

“Depends really on how much you’ve won the family lottery…” Cadence replied. “Well, anyways, all in all, I mean what I said about the family bit. Doesn’t matter if ya don’t feel the same. I’m here—”

“Of course I feel the same, Cadence,” Francis interjected. “Make no mistake.”

Bah. His words—feigned or not—made her feel giddy inside. Maybe they weren’t feigned though. Francis was awfully honest now, after all. Huh. Turned out Maria was right about things being said out loud. Made things better.

Francis’s brows suddenly furrowed and he held his head.

“What is it?”

“Many of my gates have been opened in tandem lately without the travelers asking to be sent to specific locations. There are so many being opened at once that I can’t tell who’s using them and where they’re being used.”

Cadence blanched. “Ya didn’t give your proto-conductors ta any weirdos, did ya?”

“No, of course not.” He lowered his hand. “Gamma must be planning something while trying to hide his movements from me…”

Discomfort squirmed in Cadence’s chest at the statement. It wasn’t right. Working with Gamma—

“Don’t worry about it,” Francis said. “I’ll handle it.”

Cadence had said that many times herself before, and she never really had a handle on ‘it’. Especially when it came to Alma. Thinking about this, she sat in silence for a little while longer with him before she muttered half-heartedly, “Say, Francis, what do ya think Alma is doin’ with a guy like that?”

“You mean Enzo or Alpha?”

Ouch. Talk about a slap to the face. 

“Literally speaking, I’m assuming both men are using her and perhaps she is using them in turn,” Francis reasoned. “I believe Alpha has been bypassing the issue with our fleeting memories being stored as vitae in the resistors by using Epsilon’s conducting to continuously transfer new vitae and memories into himself every time he is initiated. To do this, he would need an individual whose vitae is not bleached to be witness to his acts. I believe that is what Alma—and perhaps even Enzo if he is with her—is serving as.”

Cadence’s heart fluttered. “But what does she get out of it?”

“Only Alma would know,” Francis replied gently. “As for thought and moral reasoning…” He hummed in thought. “Due to their history and desires, people are drawn like moths to a flame. In the end, they are either warmed by the pursuits of their desires or are consumed by them. Oftentimes, the end result isn’t even needed—merely the call of that warmth and light. The question is—what is the balance between how much of that attraction is their own responsibility and how much of it is due to their circumstances and nature.”

* * *

Southern Region, Gemini

As per usual, Jericho came on by an hour past midnight. He greeted all the executives from Fortuna and Bendetto to Carl and Allen as he normally would—stiff wave and all. He tried to go for a couple of handshakes, but was declined by everyone except for Carl and Bendetto. Cadence urged him not to worry about formalities, but he insisted.

Their search for the night was through southern Gemini near its watery border with Leo, while a smaller group of Romano men was sent to southern Leo for a test run. Meanwhile, Maria took up the rivers running through the middle of Leo with Andres and Conta. Now that was an expedition. Maria’s whole spiel with Conta and Veles had definitely been a headache. 

That aside, Fortuna and Maximallian tagged along with Cadence herself, Jericho, and Francis in transmuted disguises as per usual. Cadence honestly didn’t see the point of it. As they wandered together through the small, rustic towns that dotted the cool countryside of Gemini, Jericho nearly spoke her thoughts out loud. Thankfully, she managed to stop him before any damage could be done.

Southern Gemini was a network of rolling vineyards dotted with small towns resembling the west side of the Twin Cities. Cadence had never been out this far from the central hub of Gemini before, so she’d been surprised about the idyllic atmosphere of the towns they stopped by. She began to wonder how different life would be if she, Nico, the Foxmans, and Fortuna had grown up in this area instead. What if the other kids had? But there wasn’t any point imagining ‘what if’s. She had to focus on reality. 

Soon four hours went by with the locals at every other town shrugging their shoulders at her probing questions. Kids? What kids? No, nothing ever happens in these parts. What’s this about a group of kids? A man with an eyepatch? Why is your friend staring at me like that—in reference to Jericho—and so on.

Once dawn began to peak up on the horizon, Fortuna decided it was time to head back. And head back they did with hanging heads. Cadence tried her best to alleviate the gloom with reassurances and cracking a joke here and there. Morale and whatnot. Aka, the thing Werner had once said was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘didn’t need to be accounted for.’ Funny how things had changed.

Eventually, they neared one of Francis’s nearby gates that was buried in the heart of a vineyard owned by an old timer who enjoyed strolling through his property in the starlight. Cadence had to transmute a disguise of invisibility over their original disguises to slip past the old man, but it wasn’t too hard of a job.

Once they reached a thick growth of vine under which the earth was stained black, Francis knelt to the ground and reached out with his glove conductor. Then Cadence felt something stirring on Maria’s end. Conta. It seemed like she was departing Maria’s side again without warning. She tended to do that a lot. Ironically. 

“Hey.” Cadence jerked her head at Francis. “Conta’s about ta ask ya ta open a gate I think.”

Francis nodded, pressed his hand against the dark earth, and watched as it burned a pale tangerine.  “She wished to return to Lamendos temporarily…”

“Lamendos?”

Francis opened his mouth to respond as the light from the gate dimmed, but frowned a second after. He placed his hand over the area again and it burned bright once more. Conta appeared immediately there, half emerged from the gate. Maximilian who’d been idly inspecting the grape vines, nearly leapt a meter at her arrival.

Conta scanned their faces—their disguises—with confusion before focusing on Francis. “Theta?”

Francis nodded. “A transmuted disguise.”

“Theta,” Conta repeated, voice thin as she grabbed his wrist, “Lamendos is gone.”

Without elaborating further, she pulled him through the gate. Cadence exchanged a look with Jericho a second after.

Wait—

But the peacekeeper was already leaping through the gate. Cadence ruffled her hair in exasperation, glanced at Fortuna who was shaking her head no, before she stepped into the gate after them.

* * *

Bikakönyv Mountain Ranges, Taurus

Cadence wasn’t really sure who or what Lamendos was, but when she stepped out from the gate, she nearly fell flat forward down onto a rolling slope of jagged rock and rubble. If Jericho hadn’t grabbed her by the back of her shirt then she would’ve tumbled her way down right smack into a coma. Who knew? She might’ve chanced suddenly becoming connected with five more people.

Jericho blinked at her as he righted her onto the thin slab haphazardly jutting out from between two smaller rocks that he was somehow balancing unperturbed on. “Is that a joke?”

Cadence yelped as she lost her footing again and clung to him. “Yes, it was—saints! Don’t move!”

“Okay.” He rested an arm around her shoulder and held her. 

Cadence let out a breathy sigh and allowed her eyes to adjust to the dim starlight twinkling down from the sky. She was standing at the very top of what looked like a crater. Rugged pieces of sharp rock erupted from the ground—all white in the starlight like broken piano keys. It looked like some giant had brought their fist down on the entire place. Bah. She’d been reading too many fiction books lately.

Earthquake?

No. Intuition. Conductors. Jericho’s grip on her shoulder tightened. No. Him. Them. 

Just below her, Cadence spied Francis and Conta standing together on another protruding piece of rock. While Conta was looking down at the destruction with indifference, Francis had a forlorn look bringing down his brow.  

A gust of wind tickled Cadence’s neck, and she turned to find Fortuna and Maximallian emerging from the gate a slab above her. The two fortunately caught themselves before they plummeted to their deaths and pressed back against the stone wall behind them.

“Cadence,” Fortuna drew, frowning down at her, “what is this—”

“W-Where in saint’s name did you all come from?”

Cadence whipped her head to her left to find a quartet standing just a meter away from her on a protrusion of rock that extended unnaturally from the side wall of the crater. An elder man with a balding head; a very familiar-looking woman; a very, very familiar-looking young girl; and a small figure that Cadence couldn’t quite make out tucked behind the girl and woman.

“A-Are you alright?” the elder pressed in accented Common. Taurusian, most likely. “Do you need help getting down?” He extended his hand. “My name is Miksa Arnold. I’m a Hegyi Utazók, a mountain traveler. I can help you out of this after I get these three up.”

Cadence tried a grateful smile at him to match the situation but felt her gaze drawn back to the two who stood behind him. Undeniably Wtorek Csilla and Wtorek Elizabeta, side-by-side. By how close the two stood together and the faint puffiness around their eyes, Cadence gauged they’d gone through some emotional dramatic family-related spiel. Which she could use to their advantage—

“Elizabeta,” Jericho stated in surprise before lifting his hand up in a wave. 

Cadence winced, reached out, pulled his hand down. Elizabeta, however, was already eyeing him strangely. Jericho met her gaze evenly, and only looked away when Cadence forced him to through their connection.

But Cadence. She is missing. She is an ally—

I know, I know, detective. But something’s up here. We gotta keep a low profile.

Csilla’s—Taurus’s—eyes narrowed as her gaze trailed up to the dimming light in front of Fortuna and Maximallian. “Vega.” Her gaze swept over them all. “I heard from Scorpio that your resistor was destroyed, so you can’t have been reinitiated. A transmuted disguise then?” She lifted both of her hands, and in the night darkness, russet light began to spill over her clenched fists like gloves. “Or maybe…”

Fortuna let out an audible breath at the sight of the dark russet light while Arnold took a step back away from Taurus and muttered, “What in saint’s name…” 

“Taurus.” Conta whipped out the knife at her belt and cut it across her palm. The blood that dripped from her hand straightened into spears of light in the air as she flicked her conductor-gloved hand. 

Saints, Cadence thought. Was fighting all these people knew how to do? 

As if to answer the question, Cadence felt Jericho’s grip on his suitcase tighten.

Arnold shouted and startled back even further as he ogled Conta’s vitae. “ELPIS—”

“Beta, no.” Francis held up his hand. “Not now.”

Conta froze at his command but her spears remained hanging in the air. “Theta?” She scanned his face. “What are you thinking….?”

“Theta?” parroted the small figure that had been tucked away behind Elizabeta and Taurus. “Where…?” After some struggling, the figure popped out from behind the two Wtoreks revealing themselves to be none other than—

Kent…? Cadence tried her best to suppress her relief and joy from cracking across her face. But it was difficult because—he was safe, safe, safeBut where were the others?

Francis’s relief was not as well contained and was cut clear across his face as he pressed a palm to his chest. Kent, however, squinted at all of them in confusion, clearly not seeing through their guises. 

“Do you know this man?” Elizabeta asked, placing a hand on Kent’s shoulder.

Kent hesitated and shook his head as he tucked away behind her again.

Cadence immediately knew what was going to happen next. Before she could give a warning shout, however, Francis had already pulled her proto-conducting ring from his finger and revealed his true appearance in a burst of copper light.

Arnold and Elizabeta stiffened, while Kent’s face lit up like the lights of the Dioscuri. Then the boy began to tear up and sniffle.

“I’m sorry, Theta. I—”

“It’s okay, Kent,” Francis said gently. “The important thing is that you’re safe.” He nodded at Miksa Arnold. “Mr. Arnold, you said you were a Hegyi Utazók, correct? So you’re an earth Elementalist.” Francis indicated the open space between them. “Would you mind conducting a path for Kent so he can come to us—”

“Wait a moment.” Elizabeta’s grip remained firmly planted on Kent’s shoulder as she stopped Arnold with a halting hand. “I am not handing this child over to you.”

Francis studied her. “You would be, Miss Wtorek, correct? I recognize you from—”

“Don’t talk to my mother familiarly like that,” Taurus interjected. 

Francis’s gaze shifted to her. “Would you prefer it if I were rude instead?” He studied her for a moment before his eyes softened and he said kindly, “I see you’re a child this time, Taurus. I saw you in that photo. The one Gamma kept with him.”

Taurus’s gaze narrowed. 

“Were you the one who sank Lamendos?” Francis pressed calmly. “I thought this place was as sacred to you as it was to us.”

“She came looking for her father,” Elizabeta interjected as she reached out and pulled Taurus close to her. She eyed Jericho again. “And I came looking for her. Sinking this place was the last thing on our minds.” 

What? Cadence blinked. It was pretty obvious that Elizabeta had come here for her daughter. But Taurus had come for Gamma? Why? To knock Gamma in? No, not that. It was clear by the way Taurus was reacting to Gamma’s name. Did she want to possibly meet Izsak? And instead had a heart-to-heart with her mother? Damn, that was sad, but that was also a card worth using.

Bah. Too much thinking.

All Cadence wanted right now was for Kent to be over on their side of these rocks.

“I see… Both of our paths have diverged from the course that the others around us are following,” Francis drew. “If I recall correctly, Taurus, you were one of the few who weren’t immediately settled for the syzygy in the beginning. I might be stepping out of bounds by asking this, but would you perhaps—”

“Scorpio was right,” Taurus interjected, brows raised. “Your initiation left you…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “If you’re looking for some sort of deal or agreement, I’m not interested. I’m not interested in what you’re doing here either unless you’re causing a disturbance in Signum that disrupts the syzygy. And you’re not. Alpha and my father are, and my focus is on him. That’s all.”

“You do realize how backwards what you’re saying is?” Conta lowered her gloved hand slightly and her vitae began to dim. She studied Taurus before saying thickly, “Gamma was initiated correctly. I heard from Omicron. She found him while she was fleeing from the Twin Cities to New Ram City. It was most likely Pisces who killed the man he was initiated into… That leaves you in a peculiar position.”

Izsak. 

“Even if something is burnt to the ground,” he’d said back then to Olive, “it still can be rebuilt as long as there’s at least one person willing to rebuild it.”

With difficulty, Cadence shook the memory off and tried to focus on the bigger question: Who the hell was Pisces? Another saint candidate? Ah, damn.

Taurus stiffened and her lips quivered. “But did you see him yourself?”

“Only Omicron saw,” Francis informed her quietly. 

Taurus glanced back up at him and a look of pity—of all things—folded across her face.

“For the photograph…” Elizabeta said after a beat. “You were the one who gave it to Gabrielle, right? Thank you for that.”

Francis nodded at her before inquiring, “If you’re implying that it wasn’t you who caused this, then who was it?”

“Shouldn’t that be obvious? It’s clear that you’ve been having trouble with him,” Taurus responded evenly. “It was Alpha. He came in here looking for your proto-conductors, Vega. There were children with him. And a pianist. Papa—” Her cheeks flushed briefly. “— handed some of yours over in exchange for Lambda. He mentioned something about coming to Ophiuchus.”

Cadence’s heart roared in her chest. There were children with him? Their kids? And Alma. They were alive and still with Alpha. So that meant—

Ophiuchus, Jericho cut in. They’re coming to Ophiuchus.

Francis tensed and looked towards Kent again.

“Even though I’m grateful for the photograph, I’m still not handing this child over to you,” Elizabeta said, voice thin. “I don’t know what this child has been through and what your connection with him is, but that tattoo on your face isn’t doing you any favors. Nor is your former reputation, Francis Foxman.”

“I assure you we only wish for Kent’s safety,” Francis responded, frowning.

Cadence weighed whether or not to jump into the conversation. Pros: squeeze some information out of Elizabeta— 

—‘squeeze information’? But Elizabeta was good. Nice. A ‘friend.’ Manipulating her would be wrong—

Cadence lowered Jericho’s air quotation marks and continued her thought process. Another pro: convince them to get Kent over here faster and make sure he was safe. Con: draw attention.

“You’re not going to force this boy to bleach his vitae like Alpha did with the other children,” Elizabeta pressed suddenly, “are you?”

Francis’s pleasant demeanor disappeared from his face “…What?”

Cadence’s hairs stood on end as she felt Jericho’s heart seize in his chest. The peacekeeper’s grip on her shoulder tightened, tightenedtightened

Taurus tensed, locking eyes with Cadence before her gaze swept up to Francis. “Wait, momma, don’t—”

“All of the children that were with Alpha,” Elizabeta continued. “Their vitae was bleached. I’m aware that you’re separate from my husband and this ‘Alpha,’ but you understand where I’m coming from after what I saw down there.”

Francis’s hand dropped to his side.

The dots connected inside Cadence’s head. Alpha. The children in Leo and Gemini. Ophiuchus. A small army of—

An eruption of fiery range snapped out from Cadence’s chest to the tips of her fingers. She clenched her fists as she was met with an onslaught of visions—memories—

First, standing before a man with a blurred face as he extended his hand and asked, “Don’t you want to bring hope and freedom to everyone? It’s what Theta would’ve wanted.”

Then, standing at the center of a village in flames as her friends bisected father, mother, daughter, son with their conductors without discrimination. There was no remorse because all of the ones who died were to return to the cycle. 

Then, standing in a warehouse with a generator conductor humming warmly in front of herHer whip conductor was still tight in her hands—the justice and punishment rightfully given. But it was all right even if they were friends because they’d returned to the cycle. That was what Theta had taught them; that was what he had assured them.

Him. Him. Him! The one—

“I-I didn’t bleach my vitae,” Kent stammered, his voice dragging Cadence out from the memory. “We didn’t, Theta! We listened! I promise!”

Kent’s cries became lost to the howling winds that suddenly erupted from the gate at Fortuna’s feet. It sent Fortuna and Maximallian flying back against the rock wall behind them. Cadence clung to Jericho tightly as the winds nearly tore her from his side. She held on tightly not only for her own sake, but for Jericho’s as well as she could feel him itching to whip out his conductor.

Detective, calm down. Detective!

She tried her best to think of her own past, of her own childhood, of the days she spent wandering the streets with Francis, Nico, and Fortuna; of her time playing a hopping duet with Nico in the Sognare to the cheers of the patrons; of watching the lights on the Dioscuri flicker on. Little by little, these memories pushed against Jericho’s own that were rattling around in her head. Jericho was seeing them too, Cadence knew, because his grip on his suitcase lessened and his rage simmered. Just barely.

“You too, Francis! Calm down,” Cadence shouted above the rumbling as she whipped her head towards the man. “This just means we gotta find the kids fast.” When the winds howled louder, she snapped, “We can still save them!”

And just like that the rumbling stopped. Francis looked over his shoulder towards her. Cadence could see his balled fists shaking.

Please hand Kent over,” Francis said, voice like steel, as he turned back to the Wtoreks. “Now. Please.”

Elizabeta glanced at Kent who was looking desperately at Francis before she nodded at Arnold. The man stiffly moved to conduct the rocky wall to their left and formed an earth path that connected the slab of rock that they were on to the one Cadence was on. After glancing up at Francis and receiving a nod, Kent hesitantly began to scoot his way across the bridge. Cadence managed to free herself from Jericho’s iron grip, gave the man a squeeze on the shoulder, and met Kent halfway on the rock bridge. 

“It’s me, kiddo,” Cadence said quietly when she saw the boy hesitating.

Kent squinted before his eyes widened and his face lit up. “Ca—”

Cadence quickly pressed her hand to his mouth before he could say her name, swept him up awkwardly in her arms, and made her way back over to Jericho.

“Our paths separate here,” Taurus said gravely as Elizabeta signaled Arnold to conduct them up the crater. Her gaze glassed over with that same pity from before again. “I have to say that—at least if what I’ve heard from Scorpio is true—I admire what you’re doing with the children, Vega. But the syzygy will come no matter what before the end of this year. I think you should just hold them close while you can.”

And with that, the trio rose on a mound of rock and disappeared from Cadence’s sight.

It didn’t seem as if Francis had been listening to Taurus’s words. Cadence knew Jericho hadn’t. The fury blazing in Francis’s eyes and the fury roaring in Jericho’s chest in the darkness—Cadence knew she’d never forget the sight and the feeling.

* * *

(      )

Cadence’s head was spiraling when they made it back into Francis’s room, and she felt like she was about to keel over. But she had to collect herself. No bouncing off the walls and having a breakdown. Not with Francis bouncing off the walls. Not with Jericho standing right beside her and staring into her desperately asking for a sense of direction. His hatred was boiling over in his chest into hers—into all of theirs, probably. If it weren’t for the fact that both Werner and Atienna synchronized in the moment they entered Francis’s room, Cadence knew she would’ve lost her head entirely. 

Jericho, calm down, Werner urged him calmly. Remember what I told you: do not act when you’re confused.

We already suspected that Alpha might be the one involved with taking the children, was Atienna’s assurance. We’ll get to them. Nothing has changed. 

But even with that, Jericho’s thoughts were over-powering—

Alpha was the one. And he was doing it again. False hope. Convincing the children. The kids. WrongHe needed to be brought to justice. False hope. Alpha was tricking the children now just as he had done back then. 

Cadence didn’t have the time to console him because Francis began to storm from exitless room to exitless room through his gates. She chased after him as she dragged Jericho and Kent who were both in dazes behind her. In one room, they passed by Pi who was carrying a dozing Mateo in his arms. Cadence quickly dropped Kent off with him before continuing on after Francis.

Eventually, all of this storming led them into the executive meeting groom. Cavallo, Bendetto, Agape, Carl, and Allen, who were all seated there as usual puffing v-cigs, leapt to their feet at their entrance.

Carl looked them over before putting out his v-cig. “Damn, you guys are late. Was startin’ to get pissed and worried—”

The black painted doors on the walls around the room began to pulsate as Francis headed to a gate on the opposite wall.

“Allen!” Cadence gave a warning shout as she fought past Jericho’s blazing thoughts.  

Allen stepped in front of Francis and held him back. “Calm down.”

A panting Conta came around behind Cadence and slowly approached Francis and Allen. It seemed as if she’d managed to keep up with Francis’s “What’s wrong with you, Theta? This isn’t like you. Calm down—”

“Calm down?” Francis stopped struggling. “Look at what he’s doing.”

“What the hell happened?” 

“Allen—Al— they—” Francis paused, turned slightly, and stared towards Cadence—no, towards Jericho who stood behind her. “Alpha is the one. He’s the one who took the children. He pushed them to bleach their vitae back then. And he’s… doing it now.”

“What?!” Carl snapped. “You mean our kids—”

“No, not yet. Kent said they hadn’t yet.” Francis’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head. “How could he? How darehe? He’s using them like pocket change.”

Allen paused for a beat; and Francis took the clear opportunity to push past him and enter his glowing gate.

Without skipping a beat, Cadence released Jericho’s hand and darted after him through it. Unsurprisingly, Jericho and Conta followed a step behind her. Surprisingly, Fortuna and Maximallian were just behind them. Cadence turned to face the two fully with incredulity just in time to see the gate behind them dim into nothing as Carl and Allen were about to step on through it.

Cadence faced forward. She was standing now on top of a roof with curve tiles overseeing a familiar smoky city glowing with blue lights. Zhūshā Chéng, of all places. Francis stood at the very edge of the roof there, brows furrowed, lips pressed down into a frown. She’d seen him on the edge like this a couple items before. A handful of times during childhood, once when Carl had been injured in a shootout two years or so ago, and the latest time when he’d stood above the sinking Twin Cities.

Cadence grabbed hold of Jericho’s arm just as the man brushed past her to make for Francis. Jericho spun around and stared at her blankly. A really unfitting expression given the loud pulsating thunder roaring through his veins into hers.

“Detective, ya need ta go back to Ophiuchus,” she urged. “It’s almost morning. Scorpio’ll and Leona’ll find out that ya left. Ya need ta go back. I’ll handle this bit—”

“No. Alpha,” Jericho insisted, shaking his head. His gaze flicked left then right, and Cadence could feel Werner and Atienna there urging him to listen. “He’s the one.”

In all truthfulness, she wanted him to come. She was afraid. Terrified beyond belief. For the children, for Alma, for Francis, for Jericho, and for herself most of all. But she still had to put on a charmingly brave face. Had to if everyone was flipping out. A self-deception in a different sense.

“You can come back at night,” Cadence reasoned, raising her hands calmly before placing them on the taller man’s shoulders. “Francis is stubborn as hell when he’s mad, but I’ll convince him ta keep lettin’ ya join us. I promise. We’re in the same bad stitch as before like Atienna said. All that’s changed is that we know more, right? We’ll still find the kids and get our hands on Alpha, right?”

Jericho paused, and Cadence could feel the gears in his head churning. With each churn, the heat in his chest dimmed slightly. “Right…” 

Trust me.”

“I know.” Jericho lifted a hand and placed it on top of her head. More to reassure himself than her, she knew. “I trust you.”

* * *

In-Transit, Signum

Country to country, rolling trodden prairies to coastal beach, from the hot markets of New Ram City to the cold roads of Capricorn—they continued on like that traveling without returning to the exitless room for days. Francis was relentless, bypassing amiability with locals and instead blazing into bars and casinos demanding answers to misunderstood questions. Fortuna was silent, occasionally dipping into local bars and sliding in common-coin while pressing for information. Conta trailed quietly without speaking. Maximallian—in all honesty—was just there. Loyalty to his boss—well, Cadence supposed she could admire that. Was still a hell of a time convincing them all to continue with the transmuted disguises though, and Conta had refused to don one.

Cadence, Werner said one time as he’d forcefully synchronized with her when she was following Francis into a gate leading into a rainy Libran town. Werner’s cold presence had caused her to nearly skid to a halt in the middle of trailing after Francis, and he blockaded her path with his image. This pursuit is reckless. You are traveling in broad daylight. There is no doubt that Scorpio is more effective with his eyes during this time of day. Searching with no plans and process is bound to end in failure.

I know. I know, Cadence thought, but it’s Francis, Werner. He’s family. 

Werner’s stiffness didn’t change. 

These kids are my lifeline, Cadence pressed. I promised ta keep them happy and safe, and I already did my stellar job with that. For their sake—for Jericho’s—even if it seems like it’s not cuttin’ out ta be workin’ out. Every little effort is somethin’. Like the prince says. Besides, I can’t leave Francis like he is now. All I’m tryin’ ta do is calm him down. Honest. I’m tryin ta get him ta come home. I can’t leave him.

The guilt would eat her up if she did.

Werner had remained coldly silent for quite some time before he conceded by placing his hand on top of her head. I’m going to be deep into my operation in the coming weeks, but if you call me, I will synchronize fully to the best of my abilities. 

Atienna had come along not too long after that, obviously concerned about Werner’s leniency. She’d pressed, Cadence, we have to think about the bigger picture. Francis is the type to run and return, isn’t he? Perhaps…

In that moment, as Cadence stared at Atienna incredulously, she came closer to understanding what Olive had felt in that moment when Atienna had shaken Leona’s hand. 

* * *

Sailepa, Pisces 

As they entered into the mid-part of the second week of Francis’s frantic searching, Cadence found herself stepping into Pisces for the first time. She immediately recognized the country for what it was since Maria had been to it many times before. The musty damp smell of the nearby water bodies paired with thick, heavy, saturated air—Piscese alright. It was night time so Jericho was with them, but his thoughts were a cloudy black haze of find him, find him, find him.

The Piscese town they’d entered wasn’t located on Pisces’s beach fronts like Hapaira was but right smack on top of a large river that cut through the town diagonally. The river had little run-offs that the little houses dotting the town appeared to be entirely built around. Instead of roads and sidewalks, there were little wooden planks connecting the different strips of houses to each other across the water ways. Naturally, given the time of the day, these wooden walkways were empty.

Cadence had managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep since starting on this escapade. Fortuna and Maximallian, on the other hand, often went out like a light; and she had to quickly snap them awake before Francis changed locations again. Jericho would just pace back and forth not only during the few minutes of rest they had at night when Francis dozed off but also when he was in his office at the Serpens Establishment. 

Damn it, Cadence thought as she paced along the wooden walkways. All the men in her life kept worrying her sick. Well, all the men and one woman. And the damned kids.

Cadence was drawn out of her thoughts as she registered that Francis had stopped short on the wooden path that extended out to a dock ahead of her. In the quiet, the small rowing boats roped to the dock tapped noisily against the wood. Cadence glanced over her shoulder to find Jericho a step behind her and Fortuna, Conta, and Maximallian just behind him. Eh, could be a worse search party.

“We’ll head for Libra next,” Francis said, taking a drag of his v-cig that he’d smoked down to just a stub. He glanced across the river dividing the other side of the street from them and eyed the small houses there. “I’m sure—”

Clink, clink, clink, clink.

Cadence’s blood ran cold at the sound. Jericho immediately pulled her back by the scruff of her suit and held her close as he lifted his suitcase. Before she could make out the direction of the sound, a streak of white illuminated the night sky above them. Chains. And wrapped in a tangle of them was a woman with long dark hair dressed in Monadic priest robes. In the woman’s hands was a vitae-blade that burned white.

The woman was only in the air for a second before her body was slammed down into the wooden planks across from them. Splinters flew in the air with the impact, and the chains began to arch up again and lift the woman back up into the sky. 

“Damnit, Iota! Look at the property damage!” came a shout from the edge of a low roof two houses down from where Cadence stood. “Do you even know if these people have insurance?!”

Cadence looked to the sound and nearly did a double-take. Former Comissario Vicente Giustizia stood at the tip of the roof boasting a damn curled mustache of all things and a Leonian police officer’s uniform. Flanking his left and right and dressed similarly were a man and a woman whom Cadence recognized as being former Twin Cities police officers.

“Tau,” Conta realized.

“Giustizia…” Fortuna whispered.

Tau glanced down at them from his perch before he squinted down at Conta. “Beta? Is that you? How did you get here?” He glanced at the rest of them, looking over their disguises. “New… recruits?”

A figure emerged from the narrow alleyway below the building Tau was posing on. It was a man with a bow tie and a glove conductor. It didn’t take long for Cadence to realize he was the one manipulating the chains tying the other woman down.

Iota?!

Cadence felt Jericho reach for his suitcase and felt the familiar simmering rage boil in her stomach.

ELPIS.

“You both can be terribly stubborn,” a woman’s voice drifted down from across the waterway on the rooftop above the woman bound in chains. “I always hated working with you back in the day. You, Iota, kept flirting with Scorpio. And Tau would never shut up about Libra’s law and order. You both always got on my nerves! Even more so now!”

Glancing up in the direction, Cadence found a very, very familiar woman with curly black hair dressed as a Monadic priest. Cadence immediately recognized her as one of the ones who’d nearly taken Mateo away. Her left arm was in a cast.

Said woman extended her gloved hand, sending a thin and familiar glowing white mist out over the river that divided them. The mist stopped short of their side of the river but consumed Iota’s chains in their entirety. When a swift wind blew away the mist, the chains were still present but fell uselessly into the water as they lost their glow.

“The one you would consider a Projector is most likely Nu,” Francis informed them calmly. “The woman on the roof is Rho. She’s the one you should be wary of.” He added a moment after, “They’re our ticket to Alpha.” 

Without skipping a beat, he drew a knife from his belt and cut it clear across his palm. He flung his blood across the divide towards Nu before reaching out with his gloved hand. The hand passed through the thin pale tangerine mist of light in front of him, and when he pulled his hand back out from the light, he was holding Nu by the throat. The rest of Nu’s body from her shoulders to her feet were poking out from a gate of mist that hung in the air on her side of the street.

“Theta…?!” Tau and Iota snapped in surprise.

Conta held up a hand as she drew close to them. “We’re working together.”

Tau did a double-take. “What?! Under what sort of law do you think working together with someone whose readily decided to work together with criminals is acceptable?” He mulled. “It is Theta, but we can’t act on damned bias! What sort of precedent would we set?!”

“Vega…” Nu managed weakly as she struggled in Francis’s grasp through the portal.  She reached out and managed to squeeze her hand through his gate and grip his wrists.  

“How dare you.” Francis’s grip tightened. 

“Wait, Francis,” Cadence pressed as she darted to him, “we need her ta get ta Alpha. No point in squeezin’ out her life-force. Think.”

Francis hesitated, but that didn’t relax Cadence’s nerves any. A second after, Jericho undid his suitcase and allowed his conductor to roll into his hand. Like Francis, he didn’t hesitate and flung a line of white—not at Rho nor Nu but—at Iota who was still staring incredulously at Francis.

“The suitcase peacekeeper!” Tau shouted. “Move!”

Iota barely managed to jump to the side as Jericho’s spear of vitae drove through the wall of the building she’d just been standing in front of. The white cracks spread through it in an instant, and Tau and his two lackeys yelped before they fell into the collapsing rubble.

“Damn it!” came Tau’s shout from the collapsed building. “You said we were working together!”

“We are,” Conta pressed, staring daggers into Jericho’s skin.

Jericho ignored her and lifted his conductor again.

Detective, wait! Cadence turned on her heels, lunged at the peacekeeper, and pulled his hand down. Not them

ELPIS. Not Conta. Not Francis, Jericho reasoned. Wrong. They also need to be—

I know but right now an enemy of my enemy is not that much of an enemy. Alpha groupies first, then them, aight? Trust me. Besides, there could be people in these buildings!

People. Jericho’s eyes widened.

Cadence was then relentlessly assaulted by images of herself raking through the streets of Capricorn and tearing through men, women, child with an unbiased whip of vitae—indiscriminately shattering them into nothing. All to return them to the cycle. To fix what was broken

With effort, Cadence shook the nightmare from her vision and shook Jericho hard. Slowly, the man returned from the nightmare too. He gave her a curt nod before turning his attention up to Rho. Cadence followed suit and nearly blanched as she saw the unnerving white mist pooling out from Rho’s conductor towards Francis. Fortuna was already dashing past Cadence, however, and knocked both Francis and Nu into the river as the mist overtook them. Rho hummed audibly at this. 

Jericho tightened his grip on both his conductor and his suitcase as he glared up at her. Cadence grabbed hold of his arm and nodded before transmuting invisibility over both of them. Better for him to focus on nabbing Rho, she thought, than to try to balance two types of conducting.

Cadence reached for Werner, Atienna, and Maria as they crossed a plank over to Rho’s side of the street. Unfortunately, they were all distant and far-off—Werner more so than the others—which unfortunately signaled that they were dead asleep.

“You’re the peacekeeper who conducts like Libra, right?” Rho called from her perch as her gaze passed over them. “You look different than what Alpha described, but I guess that has to do with that Transmutationist with you, doesn’t it? Quite a cool and cruel conducting.” She curled her gloved-hand into the shape of a gun and pointed it blindly around the area.

Jericho slung out his conductor as they neared the area just below her, and Cadence tried her best to spread her vitae up his conductor to hide it from sight. 

At the same time, Rho threw out her hand and sent out a blind wave of white mist. Jericho pulled Cadence back, and together they watched as his vitae was melted away into nothing by the other woman’s vitae.

“Vitae is also something living,” Rho said, “didn’t you know—”

Crack!

Jericho had thrown his suitcase at Rho as soon as his vitae had melted, and the edge of it smashed against Rho’s face mid-sentence. She stumbled backwards before blinking in a daze and holding her cheek. She opened her mouth and blood dribbled out. 

“Oh.” Rho spat out blood as she stumbled back slightly. “So that’s why they call you the suitcase peacekeeper.” She casually glanced over her shoulder and called out, “It’s getting a bit exciting, Ivanka, so how about we do a quick trial run?”

Cadence squinted behind the woman before her eyes widened. A small figure came to stand right at Rho’s side. It was a girl with short black hair in a flowery dress that revealed a mole on her shoulder. She was no older than ten, and yet still her left hand—which was extended and enclosed around a clump of dried grass—was gloved in a conductor.

Cadence felt Jericho seize beside her.

Ayda?

A girl from his past. A friend. Someone whom he’d shattered.

No, Cadence reassured him. But it’s just a kid—

Rho casually drew out what a gas mask with a long nose clipped behind her at her waist and fastened it over her face. The young girl did the same before she clenched her conductor-glove tightly. White light burst from her gloved hand out from the clump of leaves and exploded into a dense, thick fog that spilled out like a waterfall.

Cadence. Danger.

Without warning, Jericho picked Cadence up by the scruff and threw her into the river. She startled as she hit the waters and the coldness soaked into her clothing. She didn’t panic, however, and instead then recalled flashes of swimming for meters upon meters in cold ocean waters and basking in the sun rays. Channeling these many memories of Maria’s, Cadence desperately swam for the wooden sidewalk nearest to her and pulled herself up onto it. Once she got her bearings, she realized she was back on the opposite side of the waterway street and that the opposite side of the street where Jericho had been standing was completely shrouded by the hazy smoke.

“Detective!” She cried in a panic as she scrambled to the edge walkway and stared past the water’s edge towards the encroaching fog. “Detective!”

She could still feel him. It was okay. He was okay. But that misty fog—

And then suddenly, just like that Jericho became faint and distant—like how he felt whenever she was awake when he was asleep, which was rare nowadays. Realization dawned on her shortly after. It was chlorowheat. And if it was chlorowheat, that meant that Alpha and his lackeys knew what it did. And if they knew what it did and were planning to come to Ophiuchus, then…? 

A chill ran down Cadence’s spine at the thought.

The lightless mist descended on her just as Francis and Fortuna emerged from the waters diagonally across from her. Much to Cadence’s dismay, her transmutations over them began to melt away revealing their dripping pale faces. The vitae-mist’s doing most likely, Cadence figured. Her work was too good to be done away with just a little bit of water. ‘Vitae was also something living,’ right? Damn it—

Cadence backed up against the wall of the building behind her and brought her hand to her mouth. She reached out again blindly for Werner, Atienna, Maria—

Hm?

—before she too was consumed by the cloud of mist. Despite all of her efforts, the musty scent of the fog filled her nostrils and she was left with a pounding, spinning head.

Still, she tried her best to remain quiet and scanned the smog around her. It was quiet—so quiet that she could hear her heart beating. But other than that, there was utter silence.

Detective…?

Nothing. Not even anything from anyone else. Not Maria, Olive, Werner, Atienna. Just a void. But there was no point in panicking. She’d gone through this before. What was important here was that she was still alive meaning Jericho was still alive. He was most likely blinded by this fog like she was. Like they all were. The best thing to do was get down and stay quiet. Yeah. Just like Olive did back in Bodhi Temple like two weeks ago.

Cadence sank to a crouch and laid low against the plank deck. The chlorowheat haze was thinner down here, but she could still barely make anything out—

“Cadence?” 

Cadence stiffened as she heard Jericho’s voice echoing through the fog.

“Jericho, is that you?” That was Francis now. “Cadence?”

What were they thinking shouting like that? Damn it—couldn’t they have a little bit of sense?

“Boss?” Maximilian now.

“Theta!” Now it was Conta too? Seriously?

“Tau, where are you?” —Iota?

Cadence tensed as a pair of boots stormed just past her. Paired with those boots was a swishing flash of a white vitae blade. Nu. Probably had a gas mask on too. And it looked like she was heading in the direction of one of the voice’s. Damn.

“Fortuna?” someone called tentatively.

Damn it, shut up! Didn’t they realize that their conductors were useless now? 

Cadence knew she had to warn them. But if she warned them then all of those ELPIS whackos would hear her and be on her in an instant. But the others… Cost-benefit analysis for just herself dictated better survivability if she just shut up and stayed silent. But a cost-benefit in consideration of everyone else…?

“Detective! Francis! Fortuna!” Cadence shouted as she hopped to her feet and ran down the plank hoping that the wind would carry her voice in all directions. “Ya need to be quiet! They’ll find ya if ya make noise! The chlorowheat makes it impossible to conduct, but Rho and Nu got gas masks and can! Just stay quiet and get outta the area!”

Immediately, the shouting died down.

As Cadence passed by a stray glass bottle, she plucked it from the ground and threw it at the building behind her. It shattered into crystalline shards as she tucked herself into the alleyway of two buildings. She sank into a crouch and tucked her knees beneath her as her heart hammered. Hopefully that bottle was enough of a distraction.

She started counting backwards in her head. As she reached the number thirteen, a pair of shiny black shoes entered her periphery at the edge of the alley.

Jericho?

Cadence looked up and was immediately tickled by cascading dark curls. The face that those curls framed was concealed by an old gas mask with a long nose.

Aw, hell. It was Rho. Just her damned luck.

“That’s quite some good advice you gave there, Transmutationist.” Rho’s sparkling dark eyes crinkled from behind the glass eyeholes of her gas mask. Her voice was muffled. “Who are you? A friend of Theta’s? Wearing a proto-conductor ring, I see. I wonder what you really look like.” She hummed. “Well, you’re not on the list, but we might as well bid you a pleasant return to the cycle, shouldn’t we?”

A line of white light grew behind Rho’s head, illuminating Nu’s masked face in the fog behind her. Rho took a step back. Nu stepped forward and swished the blade before bringing it high above Cadence’s head

“Wait, a minute!” Cadence stammered. “I got somethin’ that you could use. You’re plannin’ on usin’ that chlorowheat as a one-over on the peacekeepers, right? I doubt ya have enough of it. I can offer ya more.”

Nu paused and glanced over her shoulder towards Rho. Seemed like the doll was a follower, Cadence thought as she scanned Nu’s waist for something she could use. She noted Francis’s proto-conductor protruding from Nu’s pocket. Maybe—

Rho clicked her tongue. “A bound contract with you? That’s not freeing or fun, is it? Off with her head, Nu!”

Nu faced Cadence again and flourished her vitae-blade—

Bang!

Nu jolted forward and brought her hand to the left side of her waist that was now dripping red. Cadence glanced to her left and found a bullet embedded into the wall a little ways behind her. Facing forward again, she spied Fortuna standing behind Rho with the pistol in her hands. With another bang! she clipped Rho’s mask right at the left eyehole. Rho stumbled back with a half-yelp, half-laugh 

Using the distraction to her advantage, Cadence plucked the proto-conductor from Nu’s waist before ducking around her and Rho and running for her life. Only six steps down the plank, she collided into Fortuna who was also running in the same direction. The woman’s gun was still clenched tightly in her left hand. 

No time for a thank you.

Without hesitation, Cadence took hold of Fortuna’s hand and ran with her down the wooden planks. They barely made it five steps before Cadence felt the hot blaze of vitae at their backs. With a yelp, Cadence pushed them both onto the ground out of the way of Nu’s sweeping vitae blade. She scrambled forward as she craned her neck and found Nu and Rho slowly approaching them from behind. Rho had removed her broken gas mask, so her pleasant smile and the small bleeding scars left from the shattered mask were clear as day.

Mind racing, Cadence smashed the proto-conductor in her hands on to the ground. She picked up a shard and brandished it half-threateningly.

“Why would you do something like that?” Rho sighed. “What a waste.”

“Just didn’t want ya to get outta here freely after ya put us under.”

“It’s not like that’s our only proto-conductor,” Rho drew, reaching for her robes and pulling out another one. “We have quite a selection.”

Good to know.

“D-Detective!” Cadence shouted as she inched back with Fortuna.

Fortuna lifted her pistol and emptied all of her rounds into Nu’s chest. The woman jerked backwards with each bullet and blood began to dribble from her lips, but she continued her approach unperturbed. Just as Nu was on top of them, a body flew out from the adjacent alleyway and tackled the woman to the ground.

Jericho, Cadence thought with relief. A second later she came to realize that it wasn’t Jericho who was pinning Nu to the ground but Conta.

Conta? Cadence thought incredulously. Rescuing them? Why in the world would she do something like that?

Before Cadence could complete the thought, Nu delivered a swift kick to Conta’s abdomen that sent her crashing into the building. Nu picked herself off the ground, flourished her vitae blade, and glanced between Conta and Cadence. Looking for who to off first, Cadence supposed.

The conductor-less were really no match for Conductors, huh?

As soon as the thought left Cadence’s mind, the splattering of black liquid on the wooden boards in front of her began to pulsate with pale tangerine light. A draft of wind emerging from the gate brushed back some of the thick mist surrounding the area.

Nu stared at the glowing gate in confusion as relief spread through Cadence’s chest. A good gamble. 

A second later out from the tangerine light burst a figure who delivered a flying kick to Nu’s chest. The kick sent the woman hurtling back into Rho who haphazardly caught her as familiar warm laughter rang through the fog.

“I jumped through many gates before I could make it here—it was actually quite exciting!” the figure exclaimed as their laughter subsided. “But I heard your call, my dear Cadence.” The figure turned towards Cadence, waving away the mist to reveal herself to be none other than Maria in the flesh. With a grin, she extended her hand out to Cadence.

“Talk about a dramatic entrance, sunshine,” Cadence noted with a sigh of relief. She took Maria’s hand and scrambled to her feet before offering a hand to Fortuna.

Maria meanwhile hopped over to Conta’s side and extended a hand out to her too. “I was worried about you, Conta! Thank you for looking after my dear Cadence and Jericho for me. That is what you were doing just now, yes?”

Conta regarded her silently before staring past her shoulder with widening eyes. “Watch out—”

Maria immediately swiveled around and threw out her leg, clipping Nu in the stomach before the other woman could swing at her with her vitae-blade. Nu stumbled back but remained standing. In turn, Maria simply swept her foot along the ground, picking up the tiny shards of Francis’s smashed proto-conductor as she did so and promptly flinging them into Nu’s face.

Nu doubled over at the cloud of glass, coughing and wiping her eyes with a grimace. Maria continued to charge forward, wrapping her hand around Nu’s which wielded the vitae blade. They then danced around the wooden walkway—Nu grimacing, Maria smiling, both trying to wrangle the vitae-blade around from the other. Finally with a swing of her leg, Maria swept Nu off her feet and caught Nu’s extinguished conductor as it flew through the air. Nu landed flat on her back, prompting Maria to plant her foot on the woman’s chest.  

After forcefully yanking Nu’s mask off from her face, Maria twirled the deactivated conducting blade in her hand before pointing it at Rho. “I recognize you! You were the one who took the ones precious to my dear Cadence, no?”

“Definitely,” Cadence muttered.

Rho mere gasped in response then cooed, “You must be the one Alpha talks about all the time! He’s right. You don’t shine as brightly as the other one. That’s too bad. Well, it was quite fun meeting you.” With that, she spun Francis’s proto-conductor between her fingers, bent down, and tapped the tip of it in front of the gate that was in front of her. As soon as it cracked open, she leapt on through. Maria immediately started for her but Nu wrapped her arms around Maria’s leg stopping her short.

A clambering of footsteps echoed along the walkway a second after, and Iota emerged from fog. Cadence tensed at the sight of her, but Iota merely glanced at them briefly and followed after Rho through the gate. Conta scrambled to her feet and lunged for the gate too, but it closed by the time she reached it. She clenched her fist and slammed it into the wood with a grimace. Maria frowned slightly at this and turned her attention to Nu.

“That was not very nice of you, yes? Now Conta is upset…”

Nu released Maria from her grip and grimaced. Then, blood began to pour out from the corners of her mouth. It took a moment for realization to slap Cadence in the face.

“She’s bitin’ her tongue off!” Cadence snapped. “Stop her, Maria!”

But it was too late. Nu gurgled on her blood for half a second more before her head lolled to the side. Maria removed her foot from the woman’s chest as white wisps of light escaped from the woman’s body. Maria was fully frowning now which was a worryingly rare sight.

“My dear, why would you do something like that—”

Another stampede of footsteps resounded around the area paired with a familiar, snapping voice: “—damn it, Iota, wait!  I told you already! This is property damage, damn it—” Tau emerged from the fog a moment later with his two lackeys trailing behind him. He stopped short as soon as he registered them all and then took a threatening step forward. “You people—”

Crack!

Tau disappeared from Cadence’s sights as the wooden planks beneath the man’s feet gave way, and he plunged into the waters below. 

“Chief!” his lackeys shouted in alarm before they floundered to pull him up.

“Damnit!” the man sputtered as he was dragged back up onto the wooden planks. “These walkways are obviously not up to code!” He coughed and hacked. “The people who built this place need to be brought before the damned courts! Absolutely—”

Before he could finish, Tau was grabbed by the back of his uniform by a tall figure emerging from the fog behind him. Jericho. The peacekeeper’s eyes were ablaze as he held Tau by the scruff, his fingers chancing for Tau’s throat.

“Wait,” Francis’s voice sauntered out from the fog paired as he appeared beside Jericho with a panting Maximallian. He placed a hand on Jericho’s arm. “Please wait, Jericho.”

Jericho paused, then dropped the man. Tau fell onto his back, wheezing and still attempting to choke out some more fighting words.

“Tau, let’s take it easy,” Francis continued.

Tau looked like he was about to retort but ended up in a coughing spasm.

Jericho stared past him and stared at Cadence. Relief broke clear across his face as their eyes met, and Cadence felt the same feeling warming her chest. The man’s gaze then flicked to Maria and his dark expression brightened slightly. “Maria…”

“Jeri!” Maria threw up her hand in a wave before bounding on over to him. “You look so serious, my dear!” She peered into his face and gasped. “Oh! I cannot hear you, no?” She turned back to look at Cadence. “And I cannot hear you either, Cadence? I can’t hear anyone!”

“Yeah… it’s the chlorowheat…” Cadence said as she made her way over to them with Fortuna trailing behind her.

Standing as far away as she could from Tau, Cadence hesitantly assessed Jericho and Francis who were both dripping wet. The dip in the waters paired with Maria’s sudden presence appeared to have calmed them both down some.

“Rho got away,” Cadence informed them quietly, tentatively as she glanced between the two men.  She nodded at Nu’s corpse and grimaced before looking away. “And Nu kicked the bucket… Sorry. We lost ‘em.”

Jericho’s brows furrowed as did Francis’s. When Jericho clenched his fist, Cadence hesitantly reached out and held it. He looked at her blankly, but she could see the fire in his eyes dim somewhat.

“So.” Tau cleared his throat, tense as he straightened his uniform and eyed Jericho. “We’ve reached an impasse. You, criminals that I should be dragging to the damned courts of this backwards country. Me, strapped here without one of your proto-conductors, Theta—”

“You don’t have a proto-conductor?” Cadence arched a brow. “What? Ya lost yours?”

Tau scowled. “What right do you have to question me?” He looked her up and down. “I recognize that way of speaking. You’re that same yapping ginger raccoon, aren’t you? I see you’re still—”

“Tau,” Francis interjected. “Alpha is converting children.”

Tau shut his mouth, before turning to Francis slowly. He looked the man up and down and remained silent. For once.

“He’s planning to raid Ophiuchus with them,” Francis continued. “I’m certain.”

Tau’s eyes widened as he paled. “Ophiuchus… Again…?”

Again…? 

“Tau, I’m aware of what your stance is regarding myself, but Alpha has taken my children,” Francis continued, before extending his hand. “We’re both seeking him. I say that’s enough reason for us to work together. I’m already working together with Beta on this, and we agreed to keep our… business arrangement from Gamma’s knowledge.”

“Beta?!” Tau snapped, whipping his head towards her as the woman approached them. “How could you?! You’re more upright than this! Where have you even been?!”

Conta sighed. “Tau—”

“You really expect me to take up arms with you?” Tau snapped back at Francis. “If you were initiated correctly, then I would consider it! But you’ve been in cahoots with the damned down under Romanos and Foxmans! I’m not stupid like the rest of you think I am! I know you’ve been hiding them in your rooms!” He wagged his finger at all of them. “Don’t think I don’t know that there are some of them here as we speak! I can smell your damn volatile crimes from here!”

Jericho’s eyes narrowed, so Cadence reached over and patted him on the chest with her free hand. 

“Ya said it yourself, didn’t ya, Tau? Ya hate criminals to your core,” Cadence tried. “You’re all about law and order, right? Ain’t there nothin’ viler of a crime than usin’ and abusin’ children?”

Tau’s eyes narrowed.

 “Well, if ya take a look in the history books, there are plenty of times when law men walk hand-in-hand with criminals, right? Think about it.” 

It was much easier for Cadence to entertain the idea of working with Tau now that Jericho’s thoughts weren’t clouding her mind.

“I like this idea!” Maria chimed. “You are Conta’s friend as well, no, Tau? That means you are automatically part of my crew! Of course, if you make any of my spirit crew sad, then there will be a problem, but I don’t think that will happen!”

“Spirit crew…?” Tau arched a brow at Maria and looked her up and down before snapping his attention to Cadence. “Hearing that babble from someone like you makes me sick, Morello!” He reached for her but was stopped short by a hand around the wrist by Jericho. After ripping his hand away with some difficulty, he scowled and nodded at Francis. “The ginger raccoon makes a sensible argument though. That damned snake tongue of hers.”

Francis nodded. 

Tau stared at Francis’s extended hand for a long while—“Fine, since there’s precedent for it and it’s more sensible to be working with you directly with your gates. But hear this. At the end of the day, everyone will be served the damned justice they deserve”—and then accepted the gesture.

* * *

(   )

Finally, at the end of that terrible second week, Cadence returned home. Francis’s recovery from the chlorowheat was faster than theirs so he was able to traverse all of them to their respective locations. For Maria and Conta, this was back to the ship. And for Jericho…

“Hey, detective, go home for now, okay?” Cadence had pressed as Francis opened a gate for him back to Ophiuchus. The sun was eclipsing the horizon, and it highlighted the dark circles beneath the man’s eyes

Jericho blinked at her blearily as he tore his gaze away from Tau whom he’d been staring at for the better half of an hour. “Home.” He stared over her shoulder towards Francis who was opening another gate.

Cadence couldn’t actually hear his thoughts at this point in time,  but she knew him enough to know he was still searching for that place. A place to call home, but—bah. 

She reached up and held the man’s face in both of her hands. He appeared a bit startled about this, but that was good. Needed to catch him off guard to get him to listen. “Detective. Go to bed. You remember what Werner and Nico said?”

“Five hours of sleep,” Jericho repeated with a nod. 

“Right.” Cadence returned the nod. “Ya did good today, detective. We’re makin’ progress. And we’ll make more progress tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.”

And so Jericho departed too just before the sun rose.

That left just Cadence herself, Francis, Fortuna, Maximilian, and… Tau and his lackeys. Without seeming to give it much thought, Francis let them all back into the exitless room where the Romano executives and Allen and Carl were gathered around their usual meeting table.

Cadence couldn’t help but feel relief at the sight of them. At least that was until—

“So this is where you’ve been hiding! I knew it!” Tau snapped as he stormed into the room behind her. “You’ve been sheltering these criminals like it’s nothing! I’ve read the damned news—they’re all supposed to be under lockdown! That’s a criminally punishable offense!” 

While the other capos tensed and backed away at the man’s arrival, Carl leapt to his feet and jabbed a finger in his direction. “What the hell is the damn commissario doing here?” He shook his head. “No, wait a damn minute—where the hell have you guys been? Damned near worried me sick!”

Allen’s gaze followed Francis as the latter paced through the room. “Francis?”

“I need to clear my head,” Francis replied before walking through another gate.

Allen rose from his seat, but Cadence waved her hand in the air at him as she followed Francis out of the room. 

* * *

Cadence found Francis in his exitless study leaning against the central glass table with a bowed head. A familiar saxophone record was trilling in the background as smoke curled from the v-cig in his hands. She stood behind him quietly, waiting for him to speak. 

“I’m losing my mind, Cadence,” Francis finally whispered—and he sounded so like himself that Cadence’s concern intensified. “I don’t know what to do.” He fisted his hair. “They’re gone. I don’t even know if they’re alive, and—and if they are alive, then… their vitae, Cadence. Their vitae. Just like Jericho. It’s starting all over again.”

It was a repeated scene. Just like that time in the early fall when she’d escaped Theta’s room and came face-to-face with Francis who had no clue about what was going on with ELPIS and his disappeared brothers and Fortuna.

However, there was no voice tickling the back of Cadence’s head this time. No unseen force urging her to hug him. But there didn’t need to be. When Francis turned to face her, she walked up to him and slung her arms around his neck. He didn’t stiffen like he did back then and instead returned the gesture. Eventually, he slid to the ground and Cadence sank down with him.

Damn. First Claire’s breakdown with Olive and now this? This was shaping up to be a terrible month.

“Francis, we still have time,” Cadence said as gently as she could, although she knew that at this point she was just trying to convince herself of this too. “You heard Kent when we were comin’ back earlier. Alpha gives them a choice. We taught the kids well and they’re smart. They won’t bleach their vitae. Not after what you taught ‘em.”

“A choice makes the matter all the more worse,” Francis returned. “A choice is a burden.” He stared off into the distance. “This place. This time. It’s all wrong. Its touch corrupts absolutely. Or perhaps these are just things that existed within us from the very beginning—seeds that just needed the right soil to grow in. Alpha… I can’t understand it. How can he do this to the children? The children…”

“Sometimes we can’t understand other people. Sometimes there’s no point in wastin’ energy tryin’—especially when they’re the type ta hurt us and the people we care about.”

“…The children. I want them to have a better life than we did, Cadence.”

Cadence nodded. “Me too.”

“Cadence, they’re my saving grace after everything that I’ve done. If we don’t save them then… They’re the future—do you see what I mean?” 

“Yeah. I get ya…” Cadence grimaced. “But, look. The kids aren’t just your responsibility, Francis. They’re ours too. Allen’s, Carl’s. Mine.” She ruminated before she continued, “The kids who’ve already gotten their vitae bleached—that bleached vitae doesn’t mean that their future is hopeless and that we’ve lost or anything. One bad thing happening ta ya doesn’t mark ya as a bad cookie for the rest of your life or in general. I mean, think about the detective. He was dragged through the mud and back by ELPIS when he was younger and look at him now. Don’t know any man alive with more vigor and gusto than that. He’s okay. Got a few screws loose, but not any more than Maria. He’s good. The kids are good.”

Francis’s gaze softened slightly before he looked down at his hands. He tossed his v-cig to the side. “… A world without their happiness is just like a world without Om—it isn’t worth living in.” 

Cadence startled and whipped to look at him. “Francis, you and the detective and—hell—every other person have been worryin’ the hell outta me. Why are ya sayin’ stuff like that? Ya can’t just ruminate all quiet like, carry that cloud over your head, and suddenly explode out like that. That ain’t healthy. Talk ta me, Francis. Doesn’t just have ta be about the kids or anythin’ happenin’ now. My head’s empty ‘cause of the chlorowheat right now, so I’m all ears.”

“The chlorowheat…” Francis frowned. After a beat, he murmured, “Do you recall what I said about grief and those who are left behind back when we were in Leo?” 

She nodded.

“To be honest, I feel as if I’m a mere imitation and I’m merely conforming to appease Allen and Carl. They are clinging to a visage of the past just as you are—just as I had when I was Vega. I feel as if I owe them a performance as a form of comfort but… I’m not a fool, Cadence. I have many years on all of you. I can see the discomfort as clear as day. We learn to live with discomforts, but things are quite different when they wear a familiar face.”

“Francis, trust me. You’re no cheap imitation. Ya wouldn’t be a Foxman if ya didn’t tear through the whole of Signum like ya just did now.” She paused, thinking, piecing together everything he’d been saying these past few months. “This… goes back to Omicron, doesn’t it?”

At the name, Francis’s sullen expression cracked immediately and he fisted his shirt above his chest. “Cadence… This grief is all that I have left of her. The words I wasn’t able to say, the moments we were unable to continue sharing, the unexpressed adoration that remains inside me. These feelings aren’t mine, but they…”

Cadence’s chest twisted, but instead of shrugging it off she nodded and rubbed his back. Alma touched her mind briefly.

“Omicron lied to me near the end because she believed I needed to be protected. She was always ridiculous like that. A truly ridiculous person.” His gaze softened again. “But in the end, she was still my precious magpie.”

Cadence understood the feeling.

“I know I need to let go because this grief clouds my judgement, and I can’t focus on the children like this. It’s the past against the future… But this is all I have left of her, Cadence. All I have left. I know this wasn’t how I felt about death and passing when I was only Theta. Back then, I was ready to accept what came. Nothingness or returning to the cycle—it was fine. But now, this feeling of losing something…”

You can’t lose anything—a voice whispered at the back of Cadence’s head—when you don’t have anything.

Cadence shook the thought off and asked, “Is that why you were knockin’ it with Epsi earlier?”

A tear slid down Francis’s cheek, startling Cadence. At the sight of it, she felt her own eyes begin to burn.

“I just wanted to see a glimpse of her, Cadence,” Francis whispered. “In that single moment when I saw her in Epsilon’s vitae, I felt at peace. But if I let go of her, it feels like I’m abandoning her memory. How can I abandon the Altair from that memory?” He shook his head. “It’s ridiculous and melodramatic, I know. I can’t believe I’m hearing myself say this, but I know… All I’m doing right now is clinging to her selfishly. After all, she is no longer here. What I do and feel no longer reaches her.”

Cadence rubbed the corner of her eyes. “Hey… lettin’ go doesn’t mean you’re forgettin’ about her. Doesn’t mean it ain’t important ta ya anymore either.” Testing the waters, she rested her head against his shoulder. When he didn’t move, she continued, “Lettin go just means that… your priorities shift. You’re lookin’ ahead instead of back.” She shrugged. “At least for some people. People deal with it differently. Kinda like how certain cons work on certain people.”

Francis frowned slightly.

Cadence then thought of Maria and Jericho and reached out her hand. “Sometimes ya take everythin’ ya’ve lost, hold it tight ta ya, and ya use it ta drive ya forward. Use it as a focus.” She clenched her fist. “Assumin’ ya even have anything to lose.”

“I suppose you’re right…” Francis stared at her extended hand then at his own hand. After a beat, he asked, “And what do you mean by ‘having anything to lose’?”

“Ya now, sometimes ya don’t have anything ta lose.”

“Are you referring to ownership of relationships?” Francis pressed his fingers to his eyes. “I don’t believe that’s the correct approach. Mutually existing in each other’s company, occasionally leaving each other’s side and returning over and over again before the final departure, and so on. There is no need to think of ownership there.” He lowered his hand and studied her for a moment. “…Thank you, Cadence.”

Cadence stared back at him as his words soaked into her mind. “No… er… thank ya to you actually. For that.” She hesitated, then said, “Francis… I don’t want ta overstep my bounds or anythin’ but… would ya mind… not seein’ Epsilon for a while?”

Francis arched a brow at this. “What for…?”

“Just. You and him. The memory vitae exchange thing.” She gestured to her head and tried to shrug nonchalantly. “Ya said it was somethin’  like a drug, right? That can’t be good.”

“That was a metaphor… And it’s only every once in a while, Cadence—”

“That’s what they always say,” Cadence interjected. “And it’s always the ones who’re the most well set and put together that say it. ‘Just a little more’ and all that. Think they can ration it out in controlled amounts, but it’s never enough.”

Francis regarded her. “You… never talked much about your past, Cadence…”

“You guys never did either,” Cadence said. “Better to leave everything behind and start fresh in the city, ya know?”

“Although we never did leave anything behind.”

“Yeah…”

Francis sighed and nodded. “Okay, I understand your feelings, Cadence. But I do wonder what you propose that we do with Epsilon. He is not an object. He needs the occasional conversation.”

“We could send him ta stay with Maria for a while. After we settle the whole marriage thing with Fortuna, I mean,” Cadence suggested. “Might be able to get more out of him that way. Plus, he likes her—er, Maria, not Fortuna.”

Francis placed a hand to his chin, then nodded. “I’ve seen Maria’s prowess… Yes, seeing as she was a potential saint candidate of Leo, he would be quite safe in her care… Alright. Deal.”

Felt nice, Cadence thought. Being at least a little bit open like this. Being open, huh?”

Cadence studied him for a while as the scent of chlorowheat slowly flooded her mind. “Hey, Francis…”

He turned to her again, eyes still red. “Yes?”

“… nevermind.” 


In-Transit, Taurus, Alpha’s (Stolen) Vessel

Alma Miraggio’s fingers glided across the keys as she hummed to the tune she played. Up and down, left and right, drawing out the needed notes, flowing out like a river. As she finished the song with a C-chord, she was met with soft applause. She didn’t quite think she deserved it for this play. The piano was obviously out of tune. That was the issue with conjured instruments. The dimensions were never quite right.

Regardless, Alma rose to a stand, turned, and bowed.

Her audience was only three people. The man with the eyepatch called Alpha, her dear Enzo, and the strange adolescent named Dominic Elegido-Rosa—an orphan apparently. Poor thing. Just like her Cadence—except this boy had a peculiarly bright smile.

“Amazing, Alma.” Enzo smiled with pointed lips. “Absolutely amazing.”

“The song was nice, but it was a bit boring, no?” Dominic sighed, slouched in his chair, head drooping.

“It’s called elegance, Dominic.” Enzo guffawed, scuffing the boy on the shoulder. “You should be honored to be in Alma’s presence. Right now everyone’s in a buzz about her. People crave what they can’t have.” 

“If they can’t have it, then why don’t they get it?” Dominic questioned. “It’s simple, isn’t it?”

Alpha chuckled. “Because oftentimes, people lack the courage and strength to strive for what they want.”

Enzo walked up, paced over to Alma’s side, sat down on her piano stool, motioned her to sit too. She obliged.

“People crave your music now, Alma,” Enzo said, rubbing her bare shoulders. “When you make your inevitable return as a damsel who escaped the clutches of ELPIS, you’ll have your own picture and starring novel. People will beg to interview you, and everyone will know your music, my little songbird.”

Alma felt her cheeks flush at the idea. What a silly dream of his. And of hers.

“And all you and I need to do is offer up some of our vitae when time comes,” Enzo finished, the last of his words making her stomach do uncomfortable flip-flops. He sighed. “It’s a shame that I can’t come onboard with all of those Specialist children.”

Alpha smiled amicably. “Oh, they’d surely kill you after everything you’ve done to them. After all, Vega has apparently taught them self-respect these past few months.” He clasped his hands together, side-glancing at Dominic. “Besides, you’ll be able to bask freely in all of the wealth we’ve gathered here on our journey at the end of all of this.”

“I have to thank you for that,” Enzo noted, scanning the room.

Alma followed his gaze, taking in the ornately painted photos hanging from the walls, the golden trinkets hanging from hooks on the nearby poles, and the diamonds that littered the floorboards.

“No need to thank me.” Alpha chuckled. “We wouldn’t be able to have our hands on such a fine ship and product if it weren’t for your information. And your expertise in finances is especially helpful in helping us prepare for everything.”

“I’m rather surprised that you don’t want any of this.” Enzo gestured around. “This is probably worth as much as one of the Ariesian royals.”

“Being bound to material items is a useless practice. We have no need for treasures,” Alpha replied. “It’s easy to let go of. What isn’t easy to let go of is bonds of family and similar relationships.” He peered at Enzo. “It’s quite curious to me that you were able to cut ties with the Campanas so easily. To even overstep your leader…”

Enzo shrugged. “It’s a family in name only.”

Alpha chuckled again. “I admire that.”

One thought on “24.2: The Swindler & Candidate in Blanca Light

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