Jericho synchronized in immediately, forcing Maria to surge to her feet. Maria had wanted to do so anyway so she was fine with following through with the action. The eye-patch wearing man merely watched her, still smiling pleasantly.
He really did look nothing like the Proteus who had taken her in, she thought. His hair was not damaged by seawater nor was it gray. There were no wrinkles crinkling the corners of his eye either. He was leaner too. But his eye—the way it twinkled. His lips—the way that curled pleasantly upwards. It was the same.
The one they had been seeking.
Maria met the one at the bars and gripped the metal. “You are Proteus…yes?”
The one looked her up and down before chuckling. “So it would seem that Epsilon did deliver my message to you.”
It was the one.
Maria’s grip on the bars tightened. Upon looking to her left, she found Jericho’s image flickering like a flame. His expression was unaffected but the cold burning sensation expanding out in her chest told her that he was anything but. He was in his office still—sitting in his cubicle. The sketches that he’d drawn and that she’d hand-selected were posted up along his wall, but his vision was blurred and unfocused so she couldn’t really see them.
“Oh, is that you, Alpha?” Epsilon called from the cell across the hall. He neared the bars with a frown. “You just left me right back in Leo with those strange men again… I didn’t know where to go…” He pulled back, glancing past Alpha and towards Maria herself. “But I met Leo again so I guess it’s alright. I really wish you’d warn me next time before you go off again. I really didn’t know what to do…”
Andres shot up to a stand and darted to the bars of his cell. He glowered before scribbling ferociously in his notebook and pressing it up against the bars. You’re Alpha? Where are the children, it read in barely legible handwriting. The ones from the orphanage. What did you do to them?
Proteus glanced over his shoulder and squinted at the writing. Then he looked Andres up and down. “Oh? That uniform and way of writing—an Espada?” His gaze flicked back to Maria then back to Andres. “I don’t believe in fate, but if that existed, I’d say that it was fate that you two met. Two people who were led along the same and then different paths meeting up again.” He nodded at Andres. “The night sky and”—he gestured to Maria— “what had the potential to be a star. Your paths could have easily been swapped maybe. If time flowed differently, you might be standing in opposite places—no different from the other—.”
“You definitely are Proteus!” Maria exclaimed, not quite understanding the feeling bubbling against Jericho’s shaking coldness in her chest. It wasn’t the excitement she imagined she’d feel when she finally found the person she’d been seeking. Where was the sense of joy and adventure? “Your way of speaking is exactly the same!”
Simon startled in his cell and then pulled Albatross and Lita close to him. Maria followed his gaze and finally fully registered the adolescent who stood at Proteus’s side. His skin was sun-kissed, his hair dark and curled, his expression bored, his chin lifted.
A child. He shouldn’t be with him. He shouldn’t be with the one. He will trick them. Lie to them. Make them—
Okay, so then Maria would simply take this boy from Proteus.
She continued, “I’ve been searching for you! All across Signum! First for myself, but now for people who are mine.” She stared at him and his passive, pleasant smile. “You took something from them. Something very important. I can’t forgive people who take things from people who are mine—”
“Not even if it’s me? Do I not belong to you, Maria?” Proteus continued to smile—just like he’d done whenever she was younger.
Yes. The memories were faint but they were there. Whether it was after she’d climbed up to the bowsprit of their ship to enjoy the breeze, after she’d single-handedly defeated a group of rowdy thieves, or after she’d sported deep red gashes on her arms and face from falls, fights, and everything in-between—he always smiled at her the same. Just as he’d smile in the background whenever she’d successfully broken apart a conductor or a Conductor; just as he’d smile whenever she passed him by with the other children who were all ready to fulfill a greater purpose. A constant, radiant smile that she’d reflected back to him.
“No, not even if it’s you,” Maria replied. “You took everything.”
“What?” Proteus stared. His brows rose a moment later, then he chuckled. “Oh, I see. That makes sense. It wouldn’t make much sense for you to obsess over something like that. You can’t have changed much. But… You’re associated with that suitcase peacekeeper, aren’t you? The True Conductor. You’re connected to him. Jericho?”
Maria felt Jericho stiffen.
“Oh, I remember Jericho. I didn’t speak with him much back then but he was quite close to another child named Ayda, wasn’t he?”
A faint memory of a girl with a mole on her shoulder flickered at the back of Maria’s mind. With it came the feeling of sand in-between her toes.
Something other than Jericho’s ice cold rage suddenly shrugged its way through her shoulders and into her chest. Apprehension.
But Cadence wasn’t synchronized strongly enough for Maria to see her and her surroundings too well.
Saints, came Cadence’s thought. Is that who I think it is? Finally… Talk about a bad way ta get a bingo… We’re standing on the wrong side of these bars.
Maria’s eyes were suddenly drawn back to Proteus and she found herself staring into his one eye.
Proteus’ eye—it reminded Maria of that one time she’d travelled to those frigid mountain ranges far beyond Signum. No city lights had existed there—only endless rolling clouds; and so as Maria had stared up into the sky on that frigid night, she’d seen a deep blackness that had seemed almost unreal. If it hadn’t been for Conta’s warmth at her side, she would’ve thought that empty nothingness would’ve lasted forever—which would’ve been very boring. Yes—Proteus’s gaze was quite a familiar thing.
Maria. This guy ain’t right. He’s givin’ me the same bad vibe I get from Cvetka. We need ta capture him and get where the kids are from him. No listenin’ ta monologues this time. Hey, Werner—
There was silence.
Nevermind. Cadence pressed on, Ya got those suppression cuffs Jericho lent ya, right? No, wait—
“I remembered to take them with me, yes,” Maria drew, “but I gave them to the officers so I could come here, yes?”
“Could you bring me a chair?” Proteus asked the police officer suddenly.
The police officer checked his wristwatch.
Andres rattled the bars. Once he gained the attention of the officer, he quickly scribbled out into his notebook and flashed it. That man has kidnapped Leonian children under the care of the Leonian Monadic Temples. He needs to be arrested immediately.
The officer stared at him before his attention was pulled away by Proteus who pulled out a collection of bills and coins and handed it to the officer. The man nodded in turn and began to walk to the door.
Andres rattled the bars of his cell again and scribbled out another note. Are you not Leonian? Monadic? Leo would be ashamed for you to be working with something like this. The pillars. You’re going against them.
I get the guy, but that’s a bit dramatic, ain’t it? Not the best time ta be throwin’ around the religious jargon, Cadence thought, tense and grimacing. Doesn’t work with people who worship money.
“What? ‘Worshipping our Ancestors and being like them’? Please,” the officer scoffed “If they were so great then why did following their principles lead us here? When things go bad, it starts from the beginning and they were the beginning. So… eh.”
“That’s an awful thing to say…” Simon murmured.
The police officer left and returned later with a wooden chair which he set down for Proteus who faced it towards Maria’s cell.
What the…? Another talk-happy guy. Not surprised. Gotta use that ta our advantage. Need ta find a way ta get outta here. Ta get those suppression cuffs—
To stop Alpha. To punish him. To bring him to justice. To stop the children from—
“You really just bend over backwards for anyone who hands you money?” Maria found herself asking the police officer.
Frowning, the policeman approached the bars of her cell. “Yes, in fact, I do.”
With a sleight of hand, Maria pulled the keys hanging at the man’s belt and slipped it into her own pocket. She then beamed at him and said, “Well, it’s okay if you’re weak, yes?”
The officer arched a brow at her before shrugging. He nodded at Proteus. “I’m going to be going on lunch break now. Be back in half an hour.” He exited the room, his footsteps tap, tap, tapping away into the distance.
“So…” Proteus slowly sank into his chair and crossed his legs. “Little Maria, it’s been some time. We should all catch up. Congratulations for finding me—rather, stumbling on me.” He studied Maria for a beat. “Did you let yourself be arrested?”
“For the experience, yes?” Maria confirmed before pressing, “Where are the children? The ones you’ve taken from Leo and Gemini?”
“Is that all you have to ask me? Well, our main ship is out near Taurus near the ports of Ziebin,” Proteus replied casually. “I’m not sure on the exact location but it’s somewhere around that area.” He hummed in thought. “The children are there sometimes. Sometimes they’re not. The question shouldn’t be ‘where are they’ but ‘are they willing to do what you want them to do when you find them?’”
Maria could feel Cadence tense beside her, so she opened her mouth to say something pleasant. After a moment of consideration, however, she stopped short. Think, Werner would say.
You should go tell Francis, Cadence, yes? Maria thought. I—She glanced to her left towards Jericho—we—will handle things here. You already helped, yes?
Maria could feel Cadence’s hesitation before their synchronization lessened. She could also feel the weight of the keys Cadence had stolen at her hip. She glanced over at the cells the others were in.
It was better that they stayed inside them, yes? Yes. Better. She would handle the one herself. But first, she wanted to talk—
“Do you remember the bells, Maria?”
Maria returned her attention to Proteus.
“I’m sure you remember it too, Espada.” Proteus glanced over his shoulder towards Andres. “The sound of the bells ringing on top of every single Monadic building. Whether it’s a temple, an orphanage, or a school, if the building is Monadic, it has to have bells. Because bells are a way of calling. A summons. Back in the day, those rings would help us find our way to Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs for the ceremonies—the baptisms.” Slowly, he looked over his other shoulder towards the cell Simon, Lita, and Albatross were in. “You, Monadic priest—you remember it too, don’t you?”
Maria’s heart skipped a beat.
“Don’t look at them, Proteus,” she said with a smile, drawing his attention away. “I’ve always wanted to see you again, but things have changed, no? I’ve learned a lot about you since back then. You are not who I thought you were, no?”
“‘Proteus.’ Of all names that I told you, you remembered that one. I wonder why…”
“It’s the strangest sounding, no?” Maria stared at him. “And it’s Ophiuchian.”
“Yes, it is, but I figured that my other name stood out for you more since you’ve taken it for yourself.” Proteus chuckled. “The name of the person I was before I became the current me was Angelo Rosa-Fernandez. When I saw that wanted poster of yours a couple months back in Pisces and saw that you were using my surname, I felt a bit touched. If I’m recalling this correctly, the head priest at your orphanage had the surname of Primero-Freeza; and you, in turn, were Maria Gloria-Primera.”
Maria cocked her head. “What’s all this about names? I didn’t really like my old name and wanted to switch it up, yes? It’s quite ironic that we share it, no?”
Proteus chuckled again. “Well, that’s not unusual for you not to remember. You and Conta both. Oh. How is Beta doing? You’re working together with her now, right? So do you call her Conta? Ah, well, it’s merely a name. Nevertheless—have you figured out my poem any? Or perhaps Vega has? You’re working with them now, I know. Because of your connection to that Geminian swindler.”
He knows. Somehow. He knows—
“Yes. I know everything. You were probably wondering how I knew, right?” Proteus propped his elbow up on his knee and leaned his chin into his open palm. “That’s what you do when you’re on long journeys. Learn and learn until you learn everything there is to learn. There’s not a single thing that I don’t know. Of course, I’m not as omnipotent as Scorpio.” He paused, smile warming. “Have you learned anything on your journey, little Maria?”
Enough talking. Maria. We need to capture him. Bring him in. Please. There was a phrase that Jericho wasn’t thinking to her, but it was one that she knew was brewing in his head somewhere: Punish him.
Maria glanced at Jericho’s image at her side. Other than the cold heat burning inside him, there was something else there. A feeling she couldn’t quite place.
Soon, Jericho, yes? Werner always talks about patience, no? It will be okay.
Jericho’s gaze did not leave Proteus.
“Oh, I’ve learned many things!” Maria replied earnestly. “But that’s not what we should discuss, yes—”
“Have you learned why you’re seeking me?”
Maria blinked, somewhat surprised by the turn of question. “I’ve always known why I’ve been seeking you.” She hung her arms through the bars of the cell. “You took me and Conta away on that day. It was the only time I was not in control. On that ship too.”
“Are you saying that you didn’t enjoy your time with me? Seeking someone who made you feel powerless is unusual to say the least. But unusual is good.” A pause. “Well?”
“Oh! It was very fun back then. I enjoyed exploring those places back too! But I was not the captain, no? You were.” But even so… Maria thought, why did Jericho not get to enjoy the same too?
Proteus continued smiling. “I see that you still haven’t realized it yet.”
“Everything that you have right now is not really yours. Everything was taken from someone else or given to you by someone else. The orphanage, me, the people and places you’ve seen. That’s the reason why you’re seeking me. You want me to give you something again.”
Maria laughed as she digested his words. El and Andres gave her odd looks again but she ignored them and said, “Of course these things were not originally mine. These places that I visit I’ve deemed too beautiful to claim just for myself, so that’s why they aren’t mine. As for other things… That’s why I take them and make them mine, yes—”
“But they aren’t really yours still, little Maria,” Proteus returned. “Because they weren’t originally yours. You have nothing like that. And that’s a perfectly wonderful thing. Not truly owning anything, I mean. No worries of real loss or heartache.”
“You can’t lose something if you don’t own anything,” Jericho muttered under his breath. It took a moment for Maria to realize she’d said that out loud too.
“Oh? That sounds like something that Scorpio would say.” Proteus chuckled again. “I’m guessing he told you that. Well… ‘Not truly owning anything’—the way Scorpio puts it makes it out to be a bad thing. That was always theirproblem. So fixated on the need to be entirely one thing. An absolute.” He reached out into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a small, brass spyglass. “But really, it’s a much more colorful world than that.” He placed it to his eye. “This is called a kaleidoscope. They originated in Libra in the 1800s. When you look into it like this, you can see a colorful light display.” He turned its body, and a soft click, click, click could be heard. “But if you move it like this, you get a completely different array.”
Proteus turned and handed the spyglass out to the adolescent standing behind him. The adolescent took it from Proteus, put it to his own eye, grinned as he turned it.
“Oh, little Maria… Even after all this time everything that they’ve taught you at the orphanage is still ingrained inside you.” He glanced back over at Andres. “Just like it’s ingrained in you, Espada—”
“Your words are like Scorpio’s, no?” Maria cocked her head. “Scorpio always said these kinds of things because he wanted people to do things, yes? No, to hurt them into doing things.”
Jericho stirred. Yes. He lied…
Maria nodded at this. Then she thought—well, if it wasn’t any of the others that were on the receiving end of his words, she supposed it was fine. She could handle them, after all.
“Oh, my intention isn’t to hurt anyone.” Proteus straightened as if in surprise. “I don’t want anything from any of you. Not really. I don’t want anything from the children either. Well… I don’t actually want anything at all.”
Maria suddenly thought of Atienna. Jericho did too.
“Everyone wants something…” Morandi interjected suddenly. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a ghost, a saint, or something else entirely. Don’t try to be holier than thou. You wouldn’t be a member of that organization if you didn’t want something.”
Proteus turned and regarded Morandi for a moment. “That’s an interesting perspective… And you are?”
“Captain Amico Morandi. And you’re the infamous one who took Maria and Conta in,” Morandi drew, meeting Proteus’s gaze. “Maria made you sound like a mysterious being. But looking at you know I can see that you’re only human. From what I hear, you’re not too kind to children… You know what we sailors do to people who aren’t kind to children.”
“Don’t look at my Morandi either, Proteus,” Maria said with a laugh. “I will rip your eye out, even if it’s you.”
“Well, that’s rather violent.” Proteus chuckled. “But I guess anti-violence isn’t a pillar of Monadism, so I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Monadism…” Proteus hummed, returning his attention to her. “If you worship something too much, then you and the thing you worship will both become useless in the end.” He closed his eye. “Worship is one of the strongest forms of attachment, isn’t it? Attachment itself is a deterrent to freedom. It takes a lot of strength to free yourself from things like that. Most people are a bit too weak to.”
He talks too much. Shut up.
“That’s always been the problem with the saint candidates. They’ve been here so long that all they can do is grow attached. That’s what happens when you don’t heed the turn of the cycle.” Proteus laughed. “I guess saying it like that makes me sort of a hypocrite since I’ve been bypassing the turn of the cycle of myself. Breaking free from it—not ending it nor heeding to it—now, that’s a pleasant thought.”
“Oh, yes, I heard about that: you ‘bypassing’ the cycle.” Maria leaned forward. “You took the vitae in the resistors ELPIS had all for yourself! You made Epsilon put them in you, yes? Because… you are one of the Great Five Devourers?”
Proteus stared. “Oh. That silly little title? Did Epsilon tell you about that? Well, Epsilon didn’t do all that transferring work himself. I put some effort into it myself. I just needed a helping hand in moving such a large amount of vitae. But… the ‘Great Devourers’?” He laughed again. “Right. Back when we were still developing the theories of vitae, our areas of research made us inclined to being bestowed names like that by our students. Can you guess what each person’s specific titles were? Say—how about Theta?”
“Theta…” Maria cocked her head in thought. “Devourer of Knowledge?”
“Oh, I see why you’d think that. But no. Devourer of Space was Vega’s title,” Proteus amended. “Devourer of Vacuum swas Delta’s title. Devourer of Self was the one Gemini and I shared, although it became a bit more divided near the end. Devourer of All was Pisces’s.”
Maria wondered if she should add something similar to her own title. Golden Beast, Devourer of—?
“Pisces….” Proteus hummed. “They’re the only one among the saint candidates who really understands the meaning of being in the cycle. Pisces and Ophiuchus….” Something in his eye flickered. “Well, no matter.”
There was a lapse of silence. Jericho tickled her thoughts.
“The children. Why did you take them?” Maria pressed. “Why do you want to convert them? Why children? When are you planning to raid Ophiuchus?”
“Oh? You know about the plan!” Proteus replied pleasantly. “I expected that. But that question—is that a question from Jericho? That doesn’t seem like something you’d ask. No, you’d never think to ask that in the first place. You’d just lift your head high and act without deliberation. That’s what was given and taught to you. Victory at the palm of your hand. That’s how you were raised.”
Maria couldn’t comprehend what he meant.
“But why not?” Proteus continued. “I mean—why not take them? Children are pure and simple. They seldom have attachment to anything besides their families and their names. Out of all the people in this world, they’re the most content. For certain children—orphans—that lack of attachment goes even further. Those ones have no names, no history, no family, no true place to call home—”
Maria felt Jericho tense beside her.
A terrible, heavy sadness stirred in her chest.
“The only attachment they really have left is the lingering one to the cycle. And that can be easily changed.”
Fury boiled over in Maria’s chest; and she lunged out towards Proteus, but he was just barely out of her grasp. She pulled back a moment later and blinked at Jericho.
Proteus arched a brow at her. “I wouldn’t go so far as saying that I’m helping them by bleaching their vitae, of course. I’m just offering you my perspective on that. You can reach a conclusion on your own. But I must say, that choice is all their own.”
Choice? No. There was no choice. No. I—
Yes, he deceived you, no?
Jericho relaxed slightly. The cycle. His thoughts bounced around wildly. Maria. He is different. From both ELPIS and the saint candidates. His thinking. I remember. He said it once. Freedom—but from conductors.
A memory flickered faintly in the back of Maria’s head.
“The ones you took belonged to Francis,” Maria pressed. “And Francis belongs to Cadence. Cadence belongs to me. So, you took from me. I can’t forgive that—even if you’re the one I’ve been seeking.”
“Right.” Proteus sighed. “Vega is taking up their bad habit of picking up strays again. Collecting them, teaching them, tying them down with the usual rhetoric…” He smiled and seemed to stare directly into her. “That’s what happened to Jericho, right? Are you two getting along now? Oh, I know you are. Have you talked about it any with Vega? About how they took you in after helping to murder your family?”
Maria’s grip on the bars tightened again.
“Or about how you definitively excised Omicron from the cycle?”
Maria felt Jericho’s heart drop to his stomach.
“In a sense, Jericho, you gave Altair peace and you freed the two of them from each other. But I have to wonder—when you’re looking at Theta now, are you seeing the present or the past?” Proteus hummed. “Really—I am just curious. I just want to understand it is all. I’m not judging.”
Maria was squeezing the bars so hard that she wondered if she’d be able to shatter them with her bare hands. Oh, she definitely could. And if she did so, then she could use the broken bars to fight Proteus. Capture him. Oh, but would Proteus be a formidable opponent? Was he a Conductor?
Pay attention, Werner would say. Observe.
Maria looked Proteus over more carefully. He was wearing gloves. Conducting gloves. A Conjuror? A Transmutationist. No, wait. There looked to be a conducting blade at his belt. A Projector? Wait, did she know what conducting type he was? Did they discuss it in the meeting? Werner was there, so they must have discussed it.
Yes. We talked about it, Maria. But you were not paying attention, Jericho replied. Conta and Francis said it. He is a Specialist. Intuition. ‘Devourer’ is because of his conducting ability.
Maria studied Jericho for a moment. Her Jericho. Jeri. Someone who was hers. Someone who she wanted to be happy. But before Jericho was hers, he was unhappy. That was something… she couldn’t change?
“Why did you treat Jericho and me so differently?” Maria drew slowly as she turned her attention back to Proteus. “You showed me adventure… Freedom. But you made him do things. Hurt him. Made him bleach his vitae. Were you not strong enough to treat us both the same?”
Jericho finally looked away from Proteus towards her.
“Oh, it has nothing to do with strength, little Maria. It was simply because you’re you and he’s him,” Proteus replied. “Although—I do admit that my interest in you was a bit influenced by the fact that you were a potential saint candidate. Bleaching such a beautifully colored vitae would be a shame.”
Maria cocked her head.
“Jericho, on the other hand… your original vitae color, do you remember what it is?”
Jericho stilled beside her.
“It wasn’t any specific color that caught my attention,” Proteus continued. “So I can’t say I recall it if you don’t. But… I do remember your conducting being like Libra’s. However, you were Scorpioan. There was very little chance of you inheriting Libra’s vitae particles since all the candidates usually respect territorial domain. But even if you were a potential saint candidate for Libra, I don’t think it would’ve changed the outcome. You were you. Just like Maria was Maria.”
No. Not enough of a reason. Why. Why? Why?
“Honestly speaking, Jericho, with your conducting ability, you’re perfectly suited to being with ELPIS. Especially since you’re lacking Libra’s eyes. What other better way to bring people hope than through completely wiping away everything that they deem wrong and cruel in the world? ‘True justice is blind.’” He chuckled. “…or something.”
Maria’s knuckles were turning white.
“I don’t like to call things ‘shames,’” he continued, “but it really is a shame what happened on that day you decided to leave us. So many children gone in an instant. Well, I guess for them it might’ve been a relief. Being free from the cycle with absolute certainty.”
The word buzzed in Maria’s head because they buzzed in Jericho’s.
“Out of curiosity more than anything else—I have to ask—why did you do it, Jericho? Because you thought what you were doing was wrong? Or was there no reason at all? Or… are you still trying to find a reason?” The corners of Proteus’s eye crinkled. “Oh, that’s definitely it. You’re still searching for a reason even after all this time—”
“You lied to my Jericho,” Maria interjected. “You tricked him. Only those who aren’t strong enough to tell the truth tell lies because they aren’t strong enough to handle what comes after they tell the truth.”
Proteus arched a brow. “A lie? You mean about Theta? I didn’t lie to you, Jericho. I told you the truth. Every small thing you did back then helped to push back the syzygy day by day. That’s what Theta—the real Theta not the smeared one that you know—would have wanted.”
Maria could feel Jericho squirm.
“And do you want the syzygy?” she asked.
“I already said I don’t want anything, didn’t I?” Proteus chucked before sighing. “Anyways, after I left you two, you both went different routes. But… in the end, you ended up at the same destination. Attached to each other and senselessly seeking and searching for things that don’t even really matter.”
“I don’t mind being at the same destination as Jeri,” Maria responded. “And Jeri is not the best ELPIS member. He is the best peacekeeper. The best one that I know.”
Jericho stared at her, his heat dimming just slightly. After a beat, he offered her a thumbs up. Thank you. You are the best ‘adventurer’ I know.
“Is that so?” Proteus murmured.
Maria nodded. “And we are the ones who determine whether what we are searching for matters are not, yes? I dictate my reality.” She pointed to the kaleidoscope in the adolescent’s hand. “I am the kaleidoscope.”
Smiling, Proteus gestured to the adolescent. “Maria, this is Dominic Gloria-Elegido. Gloria. That’s the name of the family that established Monadism in Leo. It’s also the name of Leo’s largest charitable organization. All of the children who grow up in their ‘houses of care’ are raised the same way, taught the same things, and eventually develop something akin to the same personality—well, two sets of personalities in the end.”
Maria was somewhat confused at the turn in conversation.
“You either become ‘the star’ or the ‘night sky that supports the star.’ There’s no other path for someone like you unless someone from the outside changes. The only reason Conta didn’t become an Espada and you didn’t become Leo is because I intervened on that day because I felt quite bad for you. And so, instead that fate of candidacy fell on the person we call Leona today.”
Thoughts of Leona filled Maria’s mind. Then thoughts of saint candidates. Then of Talib—Scorpio. No, Maria was certain that she would’ve stayed as herself even if Proteus didn’t intervene.
“What are you talking about, Alpha?” Epsilon interjected suddenly. “That is Leo.”
Proteus threw his head back and laughed, loud, clear. It sounded hollow. “You might shine brightly, little one, but everyone else that comes out of that orphanage shines equally the same.” He wiped a tear from his eye and met her gaze.
Faint memories of bells, sitting before grand faceless statues, listening in to lessons about the Ancestors, history, and so on warmed the back of Maria’s mind.
“There is not a single unique thing about you, little Maria.” Proteus uncrossed his legs, leaned forward, hands clasped. “But that in itself isn’t a bad thing.”
The adolescent, Dominic, finally lowered the kaleidoscope in his hands. He studied Maria. “So you’re Maria, are you? They still talk about you in the orphanage. They used to at least. Now they say I’m better than you. That I’m the best potential saint candidate for Leo that they’ve ever seen. Not that it means much to me.”
Maria cocked her head and slowly looked at him. “Well, you can be the best potential Saint Candidate of Leo. I don’t really care about that either—Dominic, yes?” She looked him up and down. “But I assure that you are not better than me because only I—”
“—can be better than me,” Dominic finished.
Maria blinked at him.
“I’m not following Alpha around by the way,” he continued. “I’m only going along for what he’s showing me. The path I set is my own.”
Epsilon cleared his throat. “What’s this about saint candidates and Leo…?”
Then Maria heard it. The sound she’d been listening in for. The faint tap, tap, tap of approaching footsteps from behind the door to the far left. The door the officer had exited from. It was time!
The door in question creaked open, and the police officer from before stepped into the room. At the same instant, Maria whipped out the keys from her pocket and cycled through them as she tried the cell’s lock. When she heard a faint click, a burst of excitement throttled her chest, overtaking the cold heat simmering there.
Proteus turned and stared at her. “Oh—”
Grinning, she threw herself on top of Proteus, causing him to fall back in his chair. Straddling him, she pinned him to the ground, pulled off his conducting gloves, and ripped off the conductors clipped to his belt. While she tossed the gloves over to Andres’s cell and the other conductors to the side, she took one of the conducting blades for herself. She activated it with a flick of her wrist and watched as gold illuminated Proteus’s still pleasantly smiling face.
The One. The One. The One.
Jericho was still with her now despite him having faded from her vision. His thoughts pounded like a heartbeat.
As Maria held the blade to Proteus’s neck, she noticed the police officer was now charging at her and waving a baton. In turn, she simply threw out her foot and kicked Proteus’s fallen chair up in the air. She plucked from there and cracked it against the officer’s head as he ran at her. The wood shattered. The officer collapsed on the ground.
The One. The One. The One.
Him. Him. Him.
The cold rage in Maria’s chest expanded outwards as the phrase rang in her ears. The vitae blade expelling out from her conductor wavered before losing its rigidity and falling limp. Like a whip. It spilled out onto the ground, the tip of it ghosting one of the stray conductors that she’d tossed aside. At its touch, gold spider-webbing veins threaded through its body and shattered it into nothing. The handle of the conductor began to spark and burn in her hands.
“No, no, Jeri,” Maria said, flicking her wrist and forcing the gold whip to straighten back into a blade. “We have to keep Proteus alive, yes? So we can ask him more questions. About the children. About Ophiuchus.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “About why.”
Proteus laughed lightly. “But I already told you why.”
A flash of light suddenly flitted at the corner of Maria’s eyes. Maria whipped around and brought up her blade just in time to block the down-coming swing of another blade. Blinding sparks erupted but she stared past them to find another conducting blade pressing down against her own. It didn’t take her long to realize that the color emitting from it was no different from the color of her own vitae.
“Proteus is showing me things,” Dominic drew, eyes glinting. “I can’t have you take him away before he shows me everything I want to see!”
The weight of Dominic’s blade pressed down harder and harder—
“You are pretty strong for a young person, no?”
—harder, harder, harder.
Maria’s arms began to buckle under the weight. She quickly threw her leg out beneath Dominic’s but much to her surprise, he leapt over her swing, landed on his feet, and pressed down harder.
With a grimace, Maria slid her blade along Dominic’s and just barely managed to throw him off balance. Just for a moment. In the next moment, he was charging forward again. With a half-laugh, she retreated off of Proteus’s body and danced backwards as Dominic slashed and slashed and slashed. She blocked left, right, left, up, down—
He was fast. Faster than Leona. And his movements. They were familiar. Like Leona’s movements. Like her own. A rare sweat broke across Maria’s back as she was pushed back against the bars of Andres’s cell. The Espada had been pressing his notebook against the bars the entire time; and now that Maria was close enough, she could read what was written on it:
These conducting gloves aren’t for Conjurors.
Don’t hurt him. He’s under the care of the Monadic Temples. He’s a child. I need to take him back.
Maria glanced at Andres’s hands and found them ungloved.
Refocusing at Jericho’s prompt, Maria ducked as Dominic’s blade hurtled towards her head. She felt the heat of the vitae just above her and even smelt burnt hair. Ducking away, she ran out beneath him, whipped around, and brought up her blade in time to block another blow. Their blades locked again.
Dominic was very fast indeed.
Oh, this was quite fun.
Staring over his shoulder, she spied the bars of the cell. He had cut clean through them, and several steel beams were now clattering onto the ground.
Maria couldn’t help but chuckle slightly at the sight as excitement snapped through her body.
Wait, no—Alpha. The One. Where was he.
Maria glanced to her side and found Proteus on the opposite side of the room. He had donned on another pair of conducting gloves he’d seemingly pulled from thin air and was now pressing it against the bars of another cell. The bars themselves were coated in what appeared to be his blood. That cell—it was the one Simon, Albatross, and Lita were in.
Maria threw out her leg to sweep beneath Dominic’s feet, but at the same time he also threw his leg beneath hers. They collapsed to the ground simultaneously, but still maintained their blades against each other. Maria’s mind raced as her arms began to shake against Dominic’s weight.
He is not ELPIS. Maria. I can’t. Not my conducting. But. The One. I—
Just his conductor, Jeri!
Yes. Okay. I trust you, Maria.
The form of Maria’s vitae blade shivered and became limp like a whip. As it did so, cracks formed up Dominic’s blade at the point of contact with her whip. An expression of surprised barely registered on his face before Maria pulled the whip back and headbutted Dominic straight on.
The young man stumbled backwards and Maria used the opportunity to send him flying backwards with a kick to the gut. He hit the opposite cell with a loud clanging thud and groaned loudly.
“Y-You cheated!” Dominic snapped as he struggled to a stand. “See, I am better than you! I didn’t cheat—”
Ignoring his exclamation, Maria charged at Proteus. As she did so, the man reached towards the bars of the cell with his free hand. The blood on the cell began to glow and melt them away in a way that reminded Maria of Olive’s heat. Simon pulled Albatross and Lita to the very back of the cell as Proteus stepped inside. Just as Maria reached him, he extended his other gloved hand out towards her. It was coated in blood. Blood that began to glow white. Blood that abruptly burst out into swirling hot flames, forcing Maria backwards.
An Elementalist too? Maria thought as she found herself pressed back against the bars of the cell once more. The heat seared the hairs on her face, but didn’t reach her completely. The smell of smoke did though, and it churned her stomach.
No, Jericho corrected. Specialist.
And then the memory came to her—
“Alpha’s conducting ability—as would you would call it in this time—is vaguely reminiscent of the Saint Candidate of Gemini,” Conta had explained back in the exitless room. “He’s able to temporarily adopt the conducting types of other people by ‘sampling’ it. He can’t do it for long nor is he able to fully, so there’s an advantage there. The length of the time he can use their conducting depends on how much he’s taken.”
“Amazing…” Maria whispered as the white flames died into embers around her.
Proteus. The one she’d been looking for. He was absolutely amazing.
But not in this situation.
Alpha. The one he’d been looking for. He was wrong. He needed to be brought to justice. Punished. Answers.
Yes. Maria could not let him touch any more of the things that were hers. Conta had returned to her, proving that she could regain things that she’d lost. So, she could do anything.
Maria lifted her conducting blade and flicked her wrist. It immediately drooped back down into a whip. The hilt began to spark, but she ignored it.
Proteus lowered his gloved hand. Still smiling.
Incapacitate. Jericho’s thoughts bounced around erratically. Then suppression cuffs.
Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.
Maria perked up at the familiar sound as a cold draft came in from somewhere. It was coming from the doorway to her left. Just as she turned towards it, it swung open and two bodies entered—no. Correction: two bodies flew into the room. Maria leapt to the side out of their path and watched as they crashed into the opposite door in a tangle of limbs. A man and a woman in Monadic robes—the man on top of the woman.
Maria didn’t recognize the man. But the woman. It was that ELPIS leader. The one with the white mist. Rho.
Intuition. If that’s Rho. The other is—
“Nu? Rho? Oh?” Alpha called out to them, pulling slightly away from the cell. “You’re both supposed to be in Capricorn.”
Nu. Maria remembered that ELPIS leader biting off their tongue. So they’d come back again? As Maria turned over the thought, the heat in her chest erupted once more.
They were all here. Right in front of her. Again. The reasons. Stop them. No again. Not to the children. Prevent it from happening again.
Rho struggled up to a stand before helping Nu to a stand as well. “It’s a bit hard to stay focused on Capricorn when we’re trying to get away from…” She lifted her finger and pointed it across the room towards the open door. “…him.”
Clink, clink, clink, clink.
Thin shadows snaked across the room as everything became illuminated by a familiar white light. In the threshold of the door stood Iota, his chains floating through the air.
Maria clenched her fists.
Iota scanned the room with a frown, gaze temporarily lingering on Maria before focusing solely on—
“Alpha!” he hissed. He threw out his gloved hand, sending a torrent of chains at the man.
Alpha in turn raised his own hands and flurried out white hot flames that melted some of the chains into a molten mess that splattered bubbling onto the ground.
“T-That’s… Zeta’s conducting…” Iota lowered his hand as he stared. “What have you done…?” Glowering, he flung out his hand again and sent out another spearing tornado of chains hurtling towards Alpha.
This time, Rho flicked her hand out and sent a cloud of white mist outwards. As soon as it contacted Iota’s chains, the metal links clattered uselessly to the ground. No, not uselessly.
Maria grabbed a limp chain from where it had fallen in front of her and began to whip it wildly in the air. The wind it created forced the white mist backwards towards Rho and away from Morandi’s, El’s, and Andres’s cells.
Maria turned her attention back to the cell Simon, Lita, and Albatross had once occupied. Nu was in there now, having most likely jumped inside to avoid Rho’s mist. But—Proteus. He was in there too facing the wall. Simon was groaning on the ground in the corner of the cell, while Albatross lay unmoving in the other corner. Lita—she was in Proteus’s arms and screaming, kicking, biting.
It took a moment for Maria to realize that the cell wall in front of Proteus was stained back and that there was a familiar needle-shaped proto-conductor in his hands. Turning back to smile at her, the man tapped the needle against the stain and stepped through the burning light that erupted there. Nu followed behind him.
Without hesitation and still gripping the chain and her conductor, Maria ran into the cell and threw herself into the gate. Cold air whipped against her face as she tumbled through it. A moment later, she caught sight of a wooden deck stretching out in the dusk light below her. She rolled out onto it to break her fall before promptly hopping back up onto her feet.
After scanning the area and taking note of the mast and bowsprit and the barrels rolling down the sloping wooden floorboards, she reached a startling realization.
Maria. This is your ship.
Maria scanned the deck quickly. There were smoke pillars rising up from holes that dotted the damaged deck. The deck was tilted slightly too, and half the railings were missing. The entire thing rumbled. Groaned.
The ship—it was sinking.
But where was everyone? Oh! They must have already gotten off the ship—
Maria paused and looked up at Jericho’s suggestion. The flags hanging up there were torn ragged and stained black. Intuition. This was the gate she’d fallen out of. But she wasn’t too concerned with this fact because standing on the bird’s nest in front of the billowing, stained flags was Proteus. Smiling still. In his hold was Lita. Beside him stood Nu.
“Oh?” Proteus glanced around the deck. His voice echoed dizzyingly against the torn flags. “I guess Rho and Nu ended up doing some work here after all. I did hear that you picked up some children from Theta recently, so I suspect they must have taken them while you were sitting in that cell and while they were running from Iota…”
Maria’s head buzzed. With difficulty, she tore her eyes away from Lita and Proteus as she scanned the ship once more. She then stared over the collapsed railings towards the pier of the tow in the distance. Somehow, it seemed as if the ship had drifted away from there. There—the pier. The children and the rest of her crew had to be there, yes? Veles would have taken them—no. Veles was no longer here to watch over the children. Yes. Werner had warned her about that. So if Veles wasn’t here, then—
He took them. He’s going to trick them. Again. No. No—
Maria could feel it now. She could understand it entirely. Jericho’s anger. His rage, burning and hot and bursting out of every vein in her body. She’d come close to inheriting this feeling herself once before when she’d thought Beta had taken her Conta in the Twin Cities.
And now someone had stolen from her again. Not just someone. The one she’d been seeking.
“Give them back,” Maria said calmly, extending her hand out to Proteus. “Give my children back and give Lita back. Give my crew back.”
Proteus remained smiling as he dragged his bloody hand across Lita’s face. Lita stiffened visibly but she remained silent, dry-eyed, chin raised.
Her Lita. Maria was proud of the sight. Of the bravery. Of the strength.
“Oh, little Maria, you really need to learn to let go of things like this,” Proteus drew, pulling Lita closer and resting his hand on top of her head. “So do you, Jericho. Let go of your passions. There are so many more things to do than chase the past.”
Jericho shook furiously. Don’t act when confused. Don’t act when confused. Don’t act—
A bright burst of pale tangerine light emitted from above Maria’s head followed shortly after by a falling, screamingshadow. Maria couldn’t quite make out who it was, but—
Flicking off her conductor, Maria lunged forward and caught the hollering figure in her arms easily. Morandi, she realized, as she took in his graying hairs and wrinkles. And he was still screaming.
“My dear Morandi, what is all this shouting for?”
Morandi’s screaming quieted as he registered her. “Captain!” He pressed something into her hands. The suppression cuffs.
“Thank you, my dear!” Maria exclaimed as she set him down and accepted them. “Now I can properly do this, yes?” She returned her attention back up to the trio standing on the bird’s nest.
Morandi did too, and he paled as he clutched his chest. “Saints… Lita.”
Nu doesn’t matter. Return him to nothing. He’s working with Alpha. Alpha. Alpha is all that’s needed. Once we get Alpha, then we’ll get Lita. The others—
Maria flicked her conductor on again, and it spilled out a golden whip. The handle burned and sparked again.
Yes, but if I hit Lita then… Maria flicked the whip back to a blade. She gripped her chain in her other hand. Then—all she had to do was hand-to-hand combat. Yes! She would win! As long as Dominic wasn’t here—
Maria stopped the thought before it was completed.
“One more time.”
At the calm statement, Maria looked up to find the gate glowing and Proteus holding up one finger.
“I’ll meet with you one more time before Ophiuchus. Exactly one month from now. Where the bell tolls most familiarly. You should know where that is now.”
“Bye now, little Maria.”
With that, he swooped a shrieking Lita up into his arms and turned towards the gate with Nu.
No. No. No. No!
Maria ran to the pole—nearly tripping over he feet as the entire ship lurched forward—but the three of them had already disappeared into the dimming light. She started to scale the pole but then realized a quarter-way up it that she wouldn’t be able to reach the bird’s nest in time.
No. Maria refused this reality.
With a grunt, she threw her chain up with all her might up towards the gate. The chain rose higher, higher, higher and pierced through the light. It strained, then she felt resistance. Heart hammering, she leapt back down onto deck, dragging the chain towards herself with all her might. As she did so, the chain touted and out from the gate fell a silhouette with their ankle wrapped in the metal links. The silhouette fell right at her feet. Upon registering who it was, however, Maria felt her heart sink. She looked back up. The gate was no longer active.
Wrong. Punish. Justice. The One.
Nu glared up at Maria, tightening his grip on the activated conducting blade in his hands. Before he could swing it at her, she stepped on his hand harder, harder, harder until she heard a crack! He didn’t flinch. She didn’t expect him to. When he tried to roll over, she stomped a foot on his throat. He wheezed. She straddled him and pinned him with her knees.
“Have you heard the tale of the Golden Beast?” she whispered, hissed through gritted teeth as she leaned in close to his ear. “Do you want me to show it to you?”
Instead of answering, Nu glowered and opened his mouth—
Suicide. Again. No—
Without hesitation, Maria shoved her hand into Nu’s mouth before he could snap it shut. The man’s eyes widened at this before he clamped down and bit hard. But Maria didn’t care much for the pain. She simply struck Nu on the side of the head without restraint, jarring the man and forcing him to release her hand.
She reached out to Cadence, searching to see if she and Francis were successful. Distantly, she could see a disguised Cadence sweeping that riverside Taurusian town, peeling through alleyways, running down its piers but—nothing.
But the gates—Maria thought—Francis would know where the gate Proteus opened went to…?
No. Too many opening.
“Where did you take them, Nu? Are they in Taurus?” Maria whispered, grabbing hold of Nu’s tongue. She pulled on the appendage, but then paused. “Oh… right. You’re like Jericho. You can’t feel pain.” Staring into his eyes, she tugged him forward up to her face by the tongue. “Then how should I make you talk…?”
A hand gripped her shoulder and turned her around. Morandi.
“Captain,” he panted. “The ship is sinking! We need to jump ship and swim to shore!”
Maria remained silent, glowered at him.
Morandi startled backwards. “C-Captai—” He clutched his chest abruptly and slowly slid to his knees as his face twisted in agony. He locked eyes with Maria for the briefest moment, before he fell forward motionless.
Maria stared at him bewildered. “Morandi?”
Maria’s gaze flicked between Nu and her Morandi before she pulled off the former and ran to the latter’s side. The older man’s eyes were open and staring unfocused into the distance
Jeri, what is wrong with him—
But the peacekeeper’s thoughts were clouded with only Alpha, Alpha, Alpha.
In desperation, Maria reached out for Atienna instead but then Jericho snapped back to attention—
I’m sorry. I don’t know, Maria. El. El can help. Maria, we need El.
Grimacing, Maria grabbed Morandi and threw him over her shoulders. Upon looking back, she found that—as expected—Nu had bitten off his tongue. Blood gushed out from his mouth and he thrashed around for half a second before stilling completely.
Not enough punishment.
The ship groaned beneath her feet, its life shaking away with each tremor.
It was time to go.
Taking in a deep breath, Maria held tightly onto Morandi, ran to the edge of her ship that faced the distant pier, and leapt.
The cold ocean waters greeted her like an old friend but its coolness did nothing to quell the heat boiling over in her chest. Still, she swam and swam and swam without rest—her mind boiling over with thoughts of Lita, her children, her crew, Proteus, what would Proteus do to them all. The same thing he did to Jeri?
It was happening all over again.
The pier finally loomed ahead, and she pushed forward until her hand touched the wood of a dock. She did not allow herself to rest, however, and threw Morandi up onto the wooden deck there before pulling herself up. A crowd has gathered around them, their attention sweeping from Maria and Morandi herself to her sinking ship in the distance.
Maria didn’t care for their attention. She turned Morandi over.
He did not move.
She slapped him lightly on the cheek.
He did not move.
She shook him.
He did not move.
She moved her ear towards his chest but stopped short.
Yes. I am here.
I don’t know Morandi at all. I don’t know his family. I don’t know what he likes and hates. I just know that he is by my side. That he is mine. But even if I don’t know him, Jeri, if I put my ear down and hear nothing, I—
Maria perked up at the familiar, warm call. She glanced around and saw two figures pounding on the deck towards her and pushing past the crowd. “Simon… Albatross…”
“Lita!” Albatross shouted as he reached her side. There was a bloody gash running across his chest. “Where’s Lita?” He shut his mouth when he registered Morandi’s unmoving body.
Simon sank to the ground beside her. “Morandi!” His hands hovered.
More pounding footsteps. Andres, Epsilon, and El broke through the crowd next. Andres had conducting gloves on again, and there was a pair of suppression cuffs in his left hand and his notebook in the other. He flashed what was written there to her.
They escaped through another gate. Dominic, the chain man, and the mist woman. They got away.
“Leo!” Epsilon exclaimed, joining her side. “Are you okay? Of course you are, but—” He looked down at Morandi. “Is he okay…?”
Maria’s gaze flicked to El who was panting and doubled over beside Andres. “You’re a Transmutationist!” She reached over, grabbed El’s hand, and pulled her down close. “You will fix him, and you will fix him now!”
El stiffened in her hold. “I-I don’t have my conductor—”
Maria tightened her grip, her gaze darkening.
Startling and shaking, El sank beside Morandi and looked him over. “I… don’t see any injuries. What happened?”
“He collapsed. I don’t know why,” Maria answered. She pointed to her chest. “He just grabbed here and collapsed.”
El startled and placed her ear to Morandi’s chest. She pulled back a second later. “He’s alive. He’s okay. He had… a heart attack, I think.” She looked him up and down and placed a hand to his face. “I was concerned about him earlier, but…” She shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do here. He’s stable but we need to bring him to a hospital as soon as possible.”
“Heart attack?” Maria pressed.
El nodded slowly. “Yes… he’s quite old… and being in an environment like this is quite stressful… I noticed he had hypertension earlier when I offered him a health check, but… Captain, it was only a matter of time.”
Maria stared at El, her past conversation with Conta about strength shadowing over her mind.
El asked tentatively, “Are you okay?”
“Take him to a hospital. Now.”
Without saying anything else, Maria slowly rose to a stand and walked to the edge of the pier. In the dusk setting light, she could barely see the outline of her sinking ship as it was completely swallowed up by the sea.
She’d always considered that thing a mere vessel for her journeys. Nothing special. She’d lost many ships in her adventures before and had never thought anything of it. But to those children—to the ones Francis and Cadence had entrusted her to look after—that place had been home. Home.
A broken promise. But only the weak broke promises.
Another pounding of footsteps drew her attention away. Upon turning her head, Maria spied a mildly disheveled Conta peeling through the crowd. The woman glanced down at Morandi as she reached the man’s side and then stared out towards the horizon. No expression.
No, Maria thought as she followed her gaze out to the sea. Conta wasn’t here. Not really.
Jericho’s image flickered back then at her side. His head was buzzing too—pure anger and hatred consuming his being—but still he stood beside her. It is okay. You will save them. Like you always say. You can do anything. And Alpha is the beginning. We will give him the end. If Alpha is eliminated then peace will—He hesitated. No, it will not bring peace. But it will be better—
Jericho, do you hear the bells?
The ring of them was not physical. The chimes echoed out constantly from her childhood memories. Low, resonant, rumbling. Recently, ever since her time in Capricorn as Werner, they’d become even louder. Maria wondered if Dominic, Conta, and Andres heard them too.
Yes, Jericho answered after a beat, I hear the bells.
Straddled by arms and hands in complete darkness, Lita screamed and kicked and threw her hands out blindly. Her fists connected with what she figured was someone’s face, then someone’s leg, then someone’s hand. Someone—something?—bit her in response, and so she did exactly what Maria had taught her. She bit them back.
A yelp resounded and suddenly the arms and hands holding her fell away leaving her in free fall. She landed with a thud on the floor on her rear a second later. Swallowing tears of pain from the impact, she staggered up to her feet and wildly swung out her hands.
Something soft ghosted her face. A hand. Cold.
“It’s okay, darling,” came a whisper to the side of her head. Warm, breathy. “You’re alright.”
The voice was gentle, soft, kind. Lita couldn’t help but relax slightly at its sound.
“My name is Alma,” the voice continued. “You’re safe here.”
Lita trembled. “W-Where’s Maria?”
“Why do you care so much about Maria?” came another voice—low, boyish. “She’s not even that interesting.”
Lita recognized that voice. Dominic…? Her cheeks flushed as she registered the insult. “Y-You’re not interesting! Don’t talk about Maria like that!”
“I see you’re quite devoted…” came another voice.
Familiar again. Hollow-sounding. Empty. It reminded Lita of the voice of the assassin whose vitae Mr. Campana had her read long ago. It too was hollow and empty, but there was still an edge to it. But not this voice. This voice had no underlying desire ring and emotion to it. The only thing she could describe it as was ‘hollow’ and ‘pleasant.’ This was Proteus.
“Devotion only brings suffering to the devotee and the one who is devoted, didn’t you know?” Proteus continued. “Well, no matter. It sounds to me like you have a conducting ability half-similar to Libra’s, am I right? You can see the flow of vitae.”
“How do you know—”
“Well, I know everything, like I’ve said.”
A hand—not Alma’s—grabbed Lita’s and forcefully shoved another hand—calloused but warm—into hers. Another object was placed into Lita’s other hand. The item was cold, lined with ridges, yet wrapped with something smooth. She knew what it was immediately even though its weight was different.
“How about you read Dominic’s vitae and tell me what you see?” Proteus prompted. “The conductor glasses there aren’t quite as refined as yours, but it should do.”
This was just like before. Back before Maria. Back when she was under the Campanas. Used as a product. Told to read this, do that because that had been her only purpose. No. Lita refused.
With defiance, she lifted her chin and shook her head. She hoped Maria would be proud.
“Don’t you want to see why he beat Maria?” Proteus pressed.
Lita stiffened. “Maria… Maria doesn’t lose to anyone.”
Dominic laughed, loud and clear. The sound rumbled so vibrantly that Lita was immediately reminded of Maria.
“Well—Lita, is it? Maria lost to me.”
“The choice is yours,” Proteus said a moment after. “If you don’t want to, then don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. I’ll just have some of the others show you around instead. You could leave, of course, but you might have a hard time getting around. Why not stay and see what it’s like for a little while?”
Maria didn’t lose to anyone. Lita didn’t believe them. But—she had heard the fight between Dominic and Maria, and she had felt the sparks of their vitae warm her face. That skirmish…
After a long stretch of hesitation, Lita put on the conducting glasses and tightened her grip on Dominic’s hand. As soon as she did so, she was immediately blinded by a painfully bright golden glow that filled up her entire vision. It sparkled, it pulsated, it shimmered—it was beautiful.
“You…” Lita stared in utter disbelief. “You’re brighter than Maria.”