The click-clacking of the train had embedded itself into Elizabeta’s bones. However, the nausea twisting her stomach into knots was not as terrible as it had been when she’d been riding on these trains two weeks prior. The medication she’d taken was doing good work it seemed. Or perhaps it was that her nausea was medicated by the warm and curly head that currently rested on her lap. Her darling little Csilla.
Elizabeta hadn’t yet asked her daughter about the syzygy nor about the past iterations of Taurus. That wasn’t necessary to what their goal was, and those facts didn’t matter to Elizabeta at all. That didn’t stop her curiosity, however. After all, the Saint Candidate of Taurus was active during the war. She wondered if they’d ever encountered each other during that tumultuous period.
“Mama,” Csilla said suddenly. “I saw you during the war. You and Papa both.”
Elizabeta tensed, wondering if her daughter could somehow read her thoughts. Instead of voicing this aloud, she ran a hand through Csilla’s hair. “It’s alright, honey. You don’t have to—”
“No.” Csilla turned her head and met Elizabeta’s eyes. “I want to tell you.”
✦ I ✦
Leonhart Gloria-Ariete, the Saint Candidate of Leo, presses through the red clay halls of the Oros Royal Palace with his head held high and his gaze calmly sweeping. He takes note of the gold-painted laurels lapping the points where the walls meet the ceiling and then the pearly vases placed in front of the heavy steel doors just ahead. These recent additions to the palace are the best ones incorporated in the past century.
As soon as Leo reaches the steel doors, they creak open for him revealing a vast circular room with a high glass dome ceiling that lets in morning sunlight. The light twists long shadows across the square swirls that have been carved into the limestone walls. At the very center of the room sits two thrones on a raised platform. The thrones are rectangular and their backs tower over the two who sit upon them. The king there has a long jaw and a high nose while the queen beside him had a sharp jaw and a short nose.
Leo approached them steadily and respectfully, but does not avert his gaze when he meets their eyes. Upon reaching the foot of the small stairs leading up to the throne, he sinks to one knee and dips his head. When he looks up, he finds both the king’s and queen’s heads still bowed. Only when he rises back to his feet do the two lift their heads.
This in itself is pride and strength—Leo knows. To be able to bow before another with respect and without feeling hurt in one’s own pride. Yes, he knows very well he can do anything—including this.
“Thank you for coming so quickly to us, Leonhart,” says the king. “I know you were in Comientzo just two days ago speaking with the priests at the temples. For you to drop everything and come—”
“It’s what I’m here for,” Leo responds, placing a hand to his chest. “Think nothing of it. After all, the amount a person can accomplish and do in a span of time is at the hands of the person themselves, no? I will be here upon request.”
The queen’s shoulders relax slightly at this reassurance, but the king remains firmly frowning.
“Leonhart,” he says, “Scorpio has officially declared war against Taurus and Aries. It’s only a matter of time before Scorpio declares war on Gemini too given their trade relations with Aries. We expected as much.”
The queen’s gaze narrows. “To think Aries would send an assassin after the Duke of House Lune just because he supported the Conservation Act… And all of this fallout because of that. Did they not think—”
“We don’t know that for certain yet,” interjects the king. “Besides, this has been brewing since the border conflict between Taurus and Cancer. No, even before that. It’s a domino effect. We’re all being pulled to our stress points because—”
“Why wouldn’t they then try to prove their innocence?” The queens lifts her chin. “It’s reckless. Scorpio may have few reservoirs but they are large. Sagittarius is expected to side with them, and they have a sizable amount of reservoirs too—maybe not enough to support their people, but enough to support a war. If it happens to be a war of attrition, then…”
It may be a daring maneuver but it is also one full of pride.
Leo has heard whispers of this on his way to the palace. Hushed but excited concerns of gearing up for a battle. The Shared Conservation Act—they whisper—how could those selfish, pride-less countries be against that? If they don’t want equal distribution of the reservoirs then they don’t deserve them.
“We’ve supported Scorpio’s council for nearly half a century now,” the king continues, “and my sister is married to the Cancerian Duke’s sister.” The king looks to Leo in askance. “We can’t stand idle. It would be diplomatic suicide and going. We’d lose—”
“I can’t help but think there’s another purpose for all of this,” the queen speaks the words Leo knows the king can’t. “To disagree with policy is one thing. To assassinate is another. The border conflict and the civil unrest before that….” She frowns, breaking the illusion of an indifferent ruler. “The need for reservoir—it’s not as if we can’t feel it too.”
Leo knows this. The shortages have swept to even the most industrious of his cities that are closest to the reservoirs. Rations are spread thin. Some towns in the far reaches of his land are not even able to warm and light their homes. These are his lands, his cities and towns, his people—how much more can they take? Well, perhaps just a little bit more. Their work is almost done, so if they could just wait.
“Aside from our political standing,” draws the king, his words stretched long and thin as he reaches over and places a hand over his wife’s, “Santana has already brought up the topic.”
Leo holds his breath for a moment.
“This…” The king does not meet Leo’s gaze. “… would be a good opportunity to promote the growth of our country’s reservoirs, wouldn’t it, Leo? This happened during the 1̷̨̤̉͋̏̚ͅ60̴̧̃̀͠0̸̲̿̐ş̸̗̞̞̇ ̷̫͓̝̰͆̂̽̏ẅ̵̝͕̯̯́̑h̶̞̤̲͇̋̕͠e̴̢͋͘n̸̛̳̺̭̦ ̴̡̳͌̏M̴̱̭̈́͒̃ǒ̶̳͎̮̺̆̓n̶̳̘̉̎̔̚ȁ̵̫̪d̷̺͗́̌͛ĭ̵̬͙͂̔͘s̷̮̹̦͊m̸̰̠̔́͒͐ ̵̯͝͝ẃ̸͉̤̙ả̶̢̢̟̈̎͝s̸̱͘ ̷͆̾͆̒͜a̸̜͋́͊̿ṯ̷̲̼̭͝ ̸͔̱̌̂͝i̸͖͈̳̜̔͂ţ̶͇̜̹̚s̸̭̈́ ̷̨̳̩̮͛̔̚h̴̲̗̺̳́e̵̞̣͑̉̂i̴̫̊̉ḡ̷͙͍͜h̴̲̣͙͗t̷͙͕͝,̴̗̏ ̴̨̝̊̓́͝c̴̲̔͋̃ȯ̷̼̑̏r̷̠̗̎̄̂͝ȓ̵̡̘̪̖̔e̵̮̅͗̋̏c̷̰̙͇̽̄̈́͜t̶̲̑͌?̶͇̄̈̈́̾”
That is indeed how the pendulum swings. As societies grow and develop, people’s lives become longer and less burdened by the need to struggle for survival. Bettered living standards, scientific and medical development, industry, agriculture—these oil the gears of a nation. In the end, the population outgrows its resources. An incomplete S-curve—or so Capricorn often says. Three centuries ago this outgrown resource was land, two centuries ago it was food, one century ago it was water. And now the resource is reservoirs—due to both natural intervention and unnatural interference.
“What are your thoughts, Leo?”
It’s the question Leo has been waiting for. Thus, the next three hours he spends discussing logistics, alternative options, and consequences. Pride, honor, and the people. At the end of all of that elaborate discussion, both the king and the queen still look to Leo in askance. They want him to say the final word.
Leo remains smiling for them. “My purpose here is to not to be the person who chooses for you, no? To offer you guidance is why I’m here. I believe I have taught you more than enough to make the choice that is best for Leo.”
The birds are singing when Leo exits the royal chambers and steps beneath the stone colonnade outside. Beyond these sounds, there is the faint distant ringing of bells. He walks up to the railings enclosing the colonnade and admires the gardens of the courtyard unfolding before him. The sun spreads its rays quietly over the red carnations, roses, orchids, and dahlias peeking out in-between the succulent bushes and miniature faceless white statues. They all glow.
Despite the season, the air is warm and filled the sound of flapping and chirping. This warmth and life, however, is just a sliver of what once was. The reservoir just beyond the garden have shrunk over the past half century. It can barely supply enough energy for the city. Still, the birds sing.
Among the many small song birds resting in the bushes and succulents, Leo spies a large brown bird with a long, curved, sharp beak. When Leo extends his arm, the bird flaps its great wings, scattering the birds around it. With two movements, the bird swoops down towards Leo, hovers for just a moment, before resting on his extended arm. Its talons almost draw blood, but Leo doesn’t mind it.
This is Oros—Leonhart’s golden eagle whom he rescued ten years ago during a particularly bad storm and raised diligently since then at the orphanage. When Leo returned to the orphanage following his saint candidacy ceremony back then, Oros somehow sensed something had changed. She didn’t come to Leo at his call and instead stared at him from a distance. At one point, she even attacked him as he neared her. It took much coaxing to get Oros to accept the difference.
Thinking of this achievement, Leo continues to admire the grand bird and tune into the warbles of the avians around him. Among those chirps and tweets, however, he can faintly pick up an unfamiliar whistle that is long and low. This particular song does not belong to any native bird of his country, Leo knows. Yes, this bird song belongs to an avian from—
“What are you doing here”—Leo’s gaze narrows just slightly—“Scorpio?”
The shadow of a man lays prostrate on the railings two arches down. He stirs and the foreign bird whistle stops. The man steps out onto the patterned floors of the hall. He is much older and wizened-looking than Leo himself. His dark curls—barely contained by a cap—are peppered with flakes of white and gray, and they frame his dark face that is just beginning to become visibly wrinkled with age. Today he is wearing layered yet elegant silk garments that leave everything but his face and hands hidden to the eyes.
This is Scorpio—rather Afzal Ayad.
He does not come any closer and says from the distance, “I was cordially invited here along with a select few members of my country’s Leading Council.” A finger presses to his lips. “Well, it’s more like I was dragged here by the latter. They constantly want their hand to be held throughout this entire process, it seems. Rather, they’d like to be absolved of the responsibility of the consequences following their decision—”
Leo strokes Oros’s head, taking note of how her beautiful feathers glisten in the light. The world truly is magnificent to produce a natural wonder like this.
“My country will side with you, Scorpio,” Leo answers finally. “That’s what my dear king and queen have decided. I’m presuming they’ll hold another meeting within the week with your leading council members. I wouldn’t recommend leaving any time too soon. Instead, you should enjoy my city here to the fullest. It’s been several decades since you’ve visited.”
Scorpio smiles—only slightly.
“Do you not enjoy my country, Scorpio?”
“Oh, your country is quite… charming. I’ve always loved it.”
“Then do you not enjoy meetings?” Leo presses. “They may seem boring but even things that are boring have their value, no?”
Instead of immediately replying, Scorpio turns to face the sun. Briefly, he catches the rays in his hands before spreading his fingers and allowing them through. “I’ll be handing my title over soon.”
This sentence can mean many things. Returning to the reservoir to remain in stasis, retiring from the political realm to seek meditation, or baptizing another potential saint candidate immediately. Given the recent developments, Leo thinks he can derive the meaning.
“They put it gently,” he continues, squinting in the bright, “but it seems as if an old face like mine wouldn’t very well serve as the poster child for Scorpio’s new military agenda. I’ve seen the new candidate. She is quite passionate—”
“Thinking of what you used to compliment your successors as is quite a funny thing, no?”
Scorpio shrugs. “Well, that just goes to show you how perception has changed over the years. Chasing your pleasures and chasing your passions—the only difference between the two is a matter of filter and perception.” He turns suddenly, meeting Leo’s gaze. “Say, Leo, are you alright?”
“What do you mean? I’m not the one who’s handing over their title.”
“Oh, that’s just but a small death.” Scorpio waves off the remark. “I was referring to you maintaining your pride after all of this… That must be quite a restraint.”
Leo’s gaze narrows for a moment. “Are you saying you have none of it left?”
“Pride and passion simultaneous co-exist in perfect harmony and opposition.”
The fluttering stops, so does the singing.
Upon looking out into the courtyard, Leo spies all the small song birds that had have been fluttering around are now poised on the very edges of all the flowers, branches. All of their heads are turned towards one direction—their gazes focused on single point: Leo himself.
Scorpio’s mediums. His spores. His adored beings. The company for a lonely man.
“I’m not all about pride,” Leo corrects, pulling Oros closer. “I’m about victory.”
Scorpio smiles at this and turns on his heels. “Well, it’s a good thing that you’re on our side then, isn’t it?” He waves a tired hand. “Take care of yourself, Leo. You know what they say about shining stars.”
With Oros now resting on his shoulder, Leo wanders the city outside the palace grounds afterwards with purpose. The roads of this city slope up and down—rising and falling with the pristine white Monadic Temples that sprout like weeds on every block and corner. There are colorful tarps and silk sheets hanging from the balconies of the long buildings that squeeze in-between the white monoliths. Along the roads, sturdy horses pull along carriages full of people or products. As he passes his people by, they wave and smile and gaze in awe at Oros’s grandiosity. He smiles at them fairly in turn. They adore him, but he also loves them equally the same.
Soon—Leo knows—these horses and carriages will be far and few in-between on this roads. Instead they will become replaced with Signum’s own version of locomotives—like the ones that he’s seen on the outskirts of their continent. Progress, however, doesn’t come without price. As locomotion grows, roads will sprawl out and flatten the countryside that he loves dearly. If it’s for his people, however, he supposed that is fine.
As Leo passes by a small stall full of red carnations and poppies, a voice calls out to from him—
—and so he stops and turns.
An alleyway opens up to his left, and in the darkness, there stands a woman with the shadow of a hood concealing her face. She radiates gloom.
After purchasing all of the flowers from the startled stall owner, Leo squeezes into the alley as the hooded figure turns and retreats deeper in. Arms now full of bouquets, Leo follows along at a steady pace. Once they reach the dead end, the woman, stops, turns, and pulls down her hood—her scarf—which he proceeds to wrap the excess of around her neck. Her head is dark and curl, and her skin is pale from lack of sun. Still, the is a tattoo of a snake on the right half of her face is clear to the naked eye.
This is Theta.
As Leo stares at her tattoo, the woman reaches for her belt and pulls out a long dagger. Slowly, she drags it across her palm. Blood dribbles down onto the stone floor, seeping vermilion in-between the sun-worn cracks. The woman drops to the ground too, placing a hand gloved in leather and metal against the stained ground. The blood bleeds white and allows a cold updraft of wind.
The gloomy woman extends her hand. Discarding the bouquets, Leonhart reaches out and accepts the gesture. Together, they sink into the light leaving a ring of flora behind them.
As soon as Leo steps up into Theta’s familiar exitless room, he is met with the point of thirteen swords—all emitting a soft white glow. He can’t quite make out anything in the candlelit darkness, so it takes some time for him to notice the shadowy figure hovering behind a tower of books. Oros sees the figure immediately and raises a threatening talon.
Theta reaches out a pale, delicate finger and rests it on the tip of one of the blades. She addresses the shadow, “There is no need to be reckless.”
The blades immediately pull back before clattering onto the ground.
“I’m just trying to stay on the precautionary side, darling,” the shadow answers, pulling out from the dark and revealing himself.
He stands almost as tall as Leo himself and his frame is strong and gallant. The candle light catches his short blonde hair and warms his cedar brown eyes. His gaze is focused solely on Theta—
—and Theta’s solely on him. “Have you so little faith in my own sense of caution, Omicron?”
“Out of all things in this world,” Omicron answers, drawing close to Theta so Leo can see the tattoo that slithers on the left side of his face, “you know I have the most faith in you.”
Theta holds Omicron’s gaze for a moment before she sighs, reaches out, touches his face. “You’re a ridiculous person—”
“Omicron!” comes a huff. “How could you point your weapon at Leo like that?! T-That’s just—so rude! After everything Leo has done for us?!”
A young woman stumbles her away over to them from the darkness—face flushed and huffing. She is wearing traditional Ophiuchian white robes that crisscross diagonally across her form, despite the clothing having gone out of fashion centuries ago. Iota has made many remarks about it but Epsilon has ignored them all—Leo thinks this is because he once mentioned to her that he felt nostalgic about the styles and dresses of the past.
“Welcome back, Leo!” The young woman brightens as she lays eyes on Leo. “Do you want to see the gardens again? The poppies are in bloom now! Did you do anything exciting while you were out?”
This is Epsilon. This is someone who has never questioned Leo even once. He has never had to explain himself nor his intentions to her—unlike what he has had to do with so many of the others. Even the ones who were there during the aftermath of Signum’s erroneous split and-or remember his promise to assist them after that fallout are wary of his presence, but not Epsilon. Never Epsilon.
Leo offers a smile and gestures to Theta. “I’d love to see them and tell you if you would, Theta…”
Theta nods and leads the three of them through another one of her gates. Upon stepping out from the darkness that Theta seems to find comfort it, Leo closes his eyes and enjoys the faint warmth of the dusk sun. He can feel the faintest pull of his reservoir in the distance. Its warmth paired with the warmth of all the others creates a false air of humidity that curls around his cheeks.
When Leo opens his eyes, he sees an open stone courtyard with a marble water fountain at its center. Around the fountain run children in loose clothing and sandals. Pristine white pillars rise around the yard, and in-between them rest marble benches where parents perch and watch their children. This country always seems to be untouched by the turmoil rolling out beyond its borders—especially this place. This is the heart of this country. This is—
“I had to dismantle fifteen more of Scorpio’s mediums this week. He seems to have grown a fondness for avian mediums recently,” Omicron says as he rubs his wrists with a sigh. He folds his hands behind his back before continuing, “I broke ten of my mediums trying to get them all. We succeeded of course, but I must say that they don’t make swords like they used to.”
“It’s only natural,” Theta responds. “The people of this era found and developed other armaments that they deem more efficient than the ones used previously. As people embrace these changes, they neglect and perhaps even forget innovations of old. The culture itself is forgotten.”
Epsilon hums in thought, glancing at Leo.
The four of them are walking through the gray-stone paths of the city. The buildings that rise around them here are even more blinding white than the temples of Leo’s own country. With some effort, however, Leo is certain he can get his temples just as pristine—although Monadism in itself troubles him.
Theta and Omicron—of course—walk side-by-side. Leo has seen Omicron’s iterations more frequently than he has Theta’s in these past few centuries. It’s only recently that Theta has become initiated with increasing frequency. Just a couple decades ago Theta burned through the initiation of a man who frequented Gemini before meeting an unfortunate end that this Omicron witnessed himself. Leo has never pried about the incident, but he knows there is something there.
Leo himself walks just a step behind the two and Epsilon keeps pace beside him. Dear Epsilon.
“Innovations of old?” Omicron considers after a while. “Darling, are you saying in the near future swords will soon be forgotten and I’m going to be throwing around these metal pipes that the people of this era are so fond of using ?”
Theta chuckles briefly. “That’s a ridiculous thought. Even so, I’m certain that if it’s you, it would still be elegant.”
Omicron flushes slightly before clearing his throat. “Scorpio has been unusually persistent about getting into our borders lately. It doesn’t make much sense to me since he can come here whenever his country requests a ceremony, so it must be he wants to see what we’re doing. I wonder what he wants.” He pauses. “Do you think he knows…?”
“I don’t believe that’s the case.” Theta puts a hand to her chin. “I believe he merely wants to see Ophiuchus.”
Leo tenses at the suggestion.
Epsilon glances at him but says nothing.
As they walk deeper and deeper towards the central area the city, the people become sparser and sparser. Soon, the humidity in the air is almost suffocating—much like the faint pull of his reservoir tugging at his chest. A long white bridge rolls out before them now and leads to a temple that is supported by a flat stone platform. Eleven other bridges connect to this platform from different directions. From an aerial view, Leo is certain that the entire display is reminiscent of a sun and its rays.
Upon walking forward onto the bridge, Leo glances below and spies thirteen familiar pulsating reservoirs. They look so small from this height, but up close they are monstrous in size. His own reservoir beckons to him from below.
As they finally reach the white building, they are greeted by two men. Alpha on the right and Gamma at the left. While Alpha offers a pleasant smile, Gamma merely nods. Eventually, Leo is led into the open and spacious building that is dotted with pillars and familiar people. Leo knows that all of these pillars are marble white and that all the people here have a ghostly white tattoo imprinted somewhere on their bodies.
There is Zu in the corner there with Pi and Iota. Lambda is playing Itero Recino with Omega in the opposite corner. The others are sprinkled around and chatting idly.
Despite the openness of the building and the pleasant atmosphere, there is a thin tension in the air. Occasionally, looks are thrown towards the heavy marble doors that stand at the very back of the room. Beyond those doors lays a person whom Leo hasn’t seen in months, years, decades, centuries.
“I believe Rho and Nu are out in Aries working on the reservoirs,” Theta says, following his sweeping gaze. “They just departed, so it will be some time before you see them again.”
“They should be called back immediately,” Leo says. “My country has officially declared war on Aries and Gemini. They’ll triple their security over their reservoirs now. Rho and Nu may be discovered, and so will our work.”
The pleasant atmosphere thins into nothing.
“What…?” Zu pulls away from Pi and Iota. “And you just let them declare war?”
“It isn’t my place to intervene,” Leo informs him, meeting his eyes.
“Isn’t your place…?” Alpha chuckles briefly. “I thought you were the Saint of Victory though?”
“I have the strength to restrain myself from making decision for my people. I am not their god. I may be here helping and assisting you but the free will clause extends to me too. I will not go back on my word.”
Alpha glances at Leo before looking towards the door at the back. “I guess all of our work through all these years has been for nothing.”
For the past few centuries they have been steadily leeching and displacing vitae from the reservoirs of all twelve countries. Their interference has gone unnoticed due to each country’s own harvesting of the vitae and the lack of care that has been implemented in tracking the levels of the resource until this past half century. Leo has been providing them all with reservoir locations that are easiest to access and to drain, while ELPIS itself is carrying out the act of slowly deducting from them. Their method is been quite an underhanded, inelegant, dishonorable approach, but it has been effective in slowing down the syzygy—at least up until this point.
“I’m not sure if I’m stepping out of bounds by saying this,” Alpha addresses Theta—their deemed leader—with a loose hand, “but maybe this method was the wrong one to begin with. Perhaps this approach is too gentle. These people will continue to move towards the syzygy on their own with their—”
“—filthy—” someone adds.
“—use of conductors and reservoirs. They’re ignorant. I’m just saying that perhaps—”
“They need a more effective manner of convincing than a silent helping hand,” Theta finishes, placing a hand to her chin. “You’re proposing that we move towards more extreme acts. Your suggestion is that our approach these past two centuries has been insufficient. Instead of dancing around the matter, it would be better for you to speak plainly, Alpha.”
Leo can see Omicron tense. Theta has never been the most tactful in speaking.
“A-Are you suggesting,” Pi interjects nervously, “that we take the information about the reservoirs public?”
“You know what happened last time that happened we tried that route,” Omicron snaps, his voice booming and shaking the walls. “Vitae usage has become too culturally integrated in these countries now. They’ve become dependent on it. We would be brushed aside and Ophiuchus ostracized.”
Leo remembers that incident well. It occurred during Theta’s very first initiation. It was a faulty one and done into a young and passionate Monadic priest. At the time, Monadism was burning its way throughout the continent. Heretics were looked down upon and sometimes even struck with violence. At the time, the most sensible approach seemed to be letting the wide public know about the truth of elevated vitae and the saint candidates. Theta took this task upon themselves and spoke with passion in front of numerous Monadic temples. In the end, they burned that version of Theta at the stake for it. The incident is recorded with immense detail in ELPIS’s records, but not in Signum’s official history records.
“I’m not suggesting anything like that,” Alpha notes casually. “I’m suggesting we more actively dismantle the reservoirs. I mean—taking tiny bits of it over the centuries?” He laughs lightly. “There’s slow and steady then there’s just being stagnant. Perhaps we should even go after True Conductors. Whether they’re adult or child or good or evil shouldn’t matter in the larger scope of things, right?”
There is a beat of tension.
This is why Leo has concerns of leaving ELPIS unattended. As much as he respects them and all they have done, they are still human in the end. Unchanging humans. Bitterness that is allowed to fester without a different perspective added on will rot a person from the inside out.
All eyes turn to Theta whose impassive countenance does not falter.
Leo interjects, “This is a ridiculous proposition, Theta. You know this.” He narrows his eyes at Alpha.
“I stand with Leo on this,” Omicron says, glancing between them. “Darling, that’s just too much.”
“Me too,” Epsilon adds. “I agree with Leo.”
“Are you saying that, Leo,” Alpha challenges, “because you know that would halt the syzygy and that’s something you don’t want?”
Leo lifts his chin and meets Alpha’s gaze. After a moment, Alpha looks away.
“Enough,” Theta finally says. “Nothing is accomplished by speaking or acting in anger except taking two steps back. We still have time. This proposed war has not yet reached the point of inevitability. However, if necessary, I do agree that we will need to change our methodology. After all, in the end, everything will return to the cycle.”
Omicron’s lips thin as he nods.
Alpha’s gaze narrows at Omicron but he says nothing else and pulls away with a pleasant smile.
There has always been something strange about Alpha—Proteus. Leo has never been able to put his finger on it. Alpha is not like the others. While the rest have remained unchanged in their fiery, passionate determination, and righteousness, it almost feels as if Alpha has become apathetic. The fire in his eyes seems to dim with passing iterations and time. Leo cannot help but look in Epsilon’s direction at this.
“We should temporarily halt our attempts at slivering away parts of the reservoirs,” Theta says. “That may just accelerate the already tense political tension. I will take the time to consider what are next step should be.”
Whispers of protest echo through the chamber.
Theta looks out at all of them with a sweeping gaze. “This is a command. You have all voted me as your leader, have you not? If you have any objections, I assure you I have all the time in the world to play Itero Recino—although I do believe our time is better used elsewhere.”
Theta isn’t the violent type and yet still her calmness is weaponized to perfection. Everyone folds under her gaze.
Afterwards, Theta leads Leo back into her exitless room alone. Although Leo will not admit it, he still feels both a sense of nervousness and awkwardness while in Theta’s presence. Theta was once a teacher, after all. An exceptional and intimidating one.
“We are grateful for your presence and assistance,” Theta says as she approaches one of the bookshelves and selects a tome. “Our records can only do so much especially since our comprehension and true understanding of them whittles away with time. So having someone who can never truly forget at our side—that is a reassurance.”
Yes, Leo knows this well. Slowly, piece by piece, they are losing themselves. Leo wonders if it’s the same for himself and the other saint candidates. They too are losing themselves just in the opposite direction—gaining instead of losing parts until the image is unrecognizable.
“Still, you must understand that you are still human, Leo. Understanding that you can’t obtain everything is necessary.” Theta turns and hands him the book in her hands. It’s open to a page dated in the early seventeenth century. “There’s an entry here made by Epsilon for t̵̗̊͜h̷̫̘͝e̶͈̊̇ ̸͍͗y̸̘̠̓ȅ̸͖å̶̢̙ṙ̸̬̓ ̸͚̦͗͘1̵̪͔̏6̶̰͍͂3̷͚͈̈́̀1̵̤̱̀ ̸̖̮́̀t̴̛̗̃o̶̩͐͛ ̸͈̣͝1̵̬̌6̴͓͚͌4̶̯̮̓̈́0̴̨̠̚.̷̞̞̉̿ ̴͉͠Į̵͋͝t̷̬̦͑̾ ̶̘͒s̵̘͛̑ả̸͉͝y̵̨͈͌͝s̷̻̹̐ ̶͔̫̅̅È̶͍̝p̷̖̈s̶̟͊͗i̷̹̔l̴̜̗͛͘ŏ̷̡̅n̵̮̎̍ ̴̱̟͝r̴̜̦͗̈ȅ̷͈m̶͍͖̕o̴̹̹͊v̵͈̝̔e̶̡̎d̵̮̖̾ ̵̙̓s̷̡̾͒o̴̦̓͝m̴̛͓̄é̴̝͜ ̴͕̘̂o̶̢͑f̷̠̱̾ ̴̿ͅy̴̦̼̽͝o̴̫̤͐͋ŭ̴̧͕͌ŗ̸̗̂ ̶̟̥̎v̵̪͍̓i̷̩̱͋t̴̢͠ä̶͓̈́ḙ̷̮͂͝ ̶̤̋ä̶͖̩́͝n̵͇̊d̷̩̐ ̶̨̤̈́s̶͚̆ṫ̴̙̽o̴̢̮͊r̸̮̝̉̅ẹ̷̠́͌d̴̞̈́ ̴̘̈̓i̶̻͛͘ṯ̷̋ ̶̤̈́s̷̞̳̿e̸̖̍p̷̠̼͒ȁ̷̹̮r̵̩̘̿͝a̶͕̽̈́t̸̥͛é̴͖̐l̸̼̤̀̕ŷ̸̝ ̷̨͝i̶͔͘ͅn̸͇̈ ̵̧̪̽Ơ̶̖͝r̴̮̞̅ő̷̟̿s̴͈͑l̴̫͑̃i̵͈̊̔ṯ̷̽a̵̲̅ ̶̠͝i̴̫͚͝n̵̤̍͐s̸̪͝t̸̡̹̀e̸̻̭̅̎ä̴̰͍̂d̴̦̽̋ ̸͕̀o̵͈͕͆̃f̴̨͓̉̚ ̵̢̺͌y̸̞̔̀o̶̠̳̿̈́u̶̢͘̚r̶̩̄ ̵͓͋̓ŗ̵͙͗̕e̴͎͌s̷͓͈̾e̸̬͔̿r̸̲͊͜v̸̠̬͝o̸̘͈͐̕ȋ̴̪͝r̷͈̍.̷̞̮̿What did Epsilon store there for you?”
“That’s a private matter,” Leo says, holding Theta’s gaze.
“I understand the hypocrisy of me saying this but we must take responsibility for all of our actions and failures, Leo,” presses Theta calmly. “Memories are painful things but they make us who we are. We cannot achieve complete victory without accepting every part of ourselves. I merely fear that this vitae that you’ve hidden away will create a problem for you in the future.”
Leo nods. “I understand your concerns, but I assure you I will never falter. I’ve done too much to raise this continent to where it stands to have it wiped away with the syzygy.”
“Right… We must continue having hope,” Theta says, pulling away and returning the book to its shelf. “In the end, that is all that is left for us here.”
✦ II ✦
Leo sits with simmering shame at the white, marble, round table that is stacked full with meats, fruits, vegetables, wines. With him are eleven others. Some look like strangers, others like friends, a select few like family, but Leo knows all these people equally the same. And now they stand equally divided in half—pulled by their domain, by their people. Oros seems to sense the divide too because she ruffles her feathers from her perch on his shoulder.
The room they are sitting is open and wall-less—it’s white pointed roof supported by exactly thirteen pillars. Twelve of them holding up the edges of the roof, while the thickest acts as a support beam at the very center. Beyond the pillars there is a garden run through with a walkway lined with faceless statues.
“So Virgo’s people have finally declared war,” Scorpio says from where she sits two chairs over. Her appearance is quite young this time. Her skin is darker and her dark curls are just a bit fuller. Her smile is pink and remains pleasant as she gestures to her half of the table. “Now we have the Six-Point Powers with me, Sagittarius, Virgo, Libra, Cancer, and Leo.” She points across the table. “And the North-South Alliance with Pisces, Taurus, Capricorn, Aquarius, Aries, and Gemini.” The room vibrates as she claps once. “Truly—what an ensemble.”
There’s something different about Scorpio this time, Leo notes. There is something in her gaze that seems to be more antagonistic than usual. Perhaps it’s the youth of this candidate that makes them like so.
“It’s a war on fear, a war on hunger, a war on injustice! A war on war itself!” A man sitting across from Leo exclaims, lifting his cup of wine high and stomping a foot down onto the table. His voice is musical and draws attention.
This is Gemini—Bella Lucia, the Saint of Reflection. His hair is brown and curled, his sun-kissed cheeks flush from either wine or good spirits. Despite the formality of this meeting, the first few buttons of his blouse are undone and he is not wearing a suit jacket.
“Will we win? Will they win?” Gemini swings his arm wildly, sending dollops of red splattering onto the marble table. “Let the one who raised helped foster the strongest nation win! Fair and square!”
“Sit down, Gemini,” the man beside him chides. “Have some self-respect. War isn’t about winning. It’s about mitigating losses.”
This is Capricorn. His green eyes are icy as always, his lips pulled down into a seemingly ever-permanent frown no matter the iteration. He was one of the ones who was most vocal supporters of the Conservation Act—so vocal that there were whispers of doubts in regards to his want for the syzygy. Unlike Gemini, his suit is completed and crisp. Every so often he checks his wristwatch. Always searching for time.
The man sitting to Leo’s right closes his eyes briefly and says, “The bonds that supposedly strengthen a country’s relations have instead torn our continent apart. Not all bonds are made in good will.”
Virgo speaks as eloquently as always, Leo thinks. Virgo is a man this time around—a rarity. His skin is dark, his head shaved, his eyes both warm and cold. Over his suit he wears a purple silk sash denoting some tribe in Virgo.
“You’re awfully excited, aren’t you, Gemini?” The man sitting to Leo’s right tugs uncomfortably on the collar of his suit. He glances at the dark-haired woman sitting beside Gemini and adds, “You as well, Aries…”
Cancer has never been fond of war, despite the numerous revolutions his country has gone through. Each iteration of his seems to be more tentative and morose than the next. Leo thinks it’s because he is completely beneath the thumb of his people rather than being just their knowledge-giver. This time Cancer’s moroseness is readily apparent in his downcast blue eyes and in the shagginess of his light brown curls. His suit is much more decorated than theirs, however, and Leo can smell his perfume permeating through the room.
The woman at the center of Cancer’s attention narrows her eyes and crosses her arms. “What is it, Cancer? Are you pointing the finger because your people have no idea what they’re doing?”
This fiery person is none other than Aries—Amelia Stratford—the Saint of Ashes. Like her previous iterations, this Aries is graced with a prominent tan and a rope of dark hair that is not tamed by any braid or ponytail. The red gown she wears blazes out on the floor, highlighting her presence.
“Let’s not get into pointless arguments,” interjects the man sitting at the very end of Leo’s side of the table. “We’re not here to debate. The debating has been done by our people.”
Libra. Arthur Pond.
Scorpio’s eyes visibly narrow at him.
“I concur!” booms the man who sits opposite of Libra, startling the dozing woman who sits across from him. “Speaking of such ill words in my—that is I, Aquarius’s—presence brings me bad countenance.”
Aquarius—Pietro Milkovich—has always been peculiar to Leo, despite their similar ways of seeking potential saint candidates. Aquarius’s exuberance and pride seem to be a different variety than Leo’s own. For instance, despite the heat, he has a fur cloak thrown over his suit. It’s expensive—clearly—but Leo would never sacrifice comfort for something like this. Pride and elegance should be worn with comfort to exude the most confidence.
The formerly dozing woman across from him, lifts her head and squints around the table. “Could you be any louder?”
Sagittarius—Pema, this time around. Unlike most of them, she is not in a suit or anything formal. All she wears is a simple t-shirt and a pair of loose pants.
“And what about you, Sagittarius?” The man beside Gemini frowns. He has not touched his wine. “From what I’ve heard, your people are searching desperately for you and yet you run away to here. I pity them.”
This is the Saint of the Fortress, Szendrey Atilla. Out of all of them, he holds the most normal appearance. His eyes are brown as is his short cropped hair. His suit is simple and plain. And yet his eyes are hard and flat.
“Taurus.” Sagittarius sighs and drapes herself across the table. “Has it ever occurred to you that no one asked?”
Taurus doesn’t take the bait.
Gemini re-seats himself and watches as Capricorn reaches over to clean the spilled wine his side of the table. He muses, “Our bet against Ophiuchus is turning in our favor, isn’t it?” He turns to Leo and props his elbows up on the table. “Should we find victory in this?”
Leo returns with a smile. “Victory has to be complete before it’s claimed, no?”
“We should discuss fallout rather than victory at this point,” Capricorn grumbles, pulling back into his seat.
Libra nods. “What should we do after the war—yes. There will be chaos. We need to help them keep order. We are originally knowledge-bearers. We can’t forget that much.”
“I think I have a suggestion,” speaks the woman who has remained silent this entire time in a milky voice.
This woman’s dark face is swirled with intricate tattoos that hold stories Leo has not yet been able to read entirely. Her off-white dress—unlike Aries’s—exposes her bare tattooed arms for them all to see. This is Pisces, the Saint of Cycles.
Still wearing a pleasant smile, she continues, “Why not start a peacekeeping organization?”
Leo lingers for a bit longer inside the hall after their meeting ends. He is not the only one. Gemini rounds the table and takes a seat beside him. The man’s eyes glimmer as they take in Oros’s form. Leo does feel some pride in this. Oros is magnificent, after all.
“Such a beautiful bird,” he coos before glancing at Leo. “And might I ask what do you think of all this, Leo? You were unusually quiet earlier.”
“And you were very talkative as usual,” Leo responds. “I just had nothing to say, yes? I cannot say the same for you.”
“I mostly said all that to lift up everyone’s spirits.” Gemini shrugs. “You know I’d rather have fun than throw myself into battle. And I’m not the type who finds playing war ‘fun’ either, mind you.” He hangs his head off the side of the chair. “You can choose one side and then you can switch to the other. And back and forth, and back and forth.” He raises a single finger. “There’s no such as playing both sides—no matter what anyone says.”
He’s trying to get at something, Leo knows. But Leo is quite stubborn and he won’t let Gemini get what he wants—so, he says, “There’s no such thing as no such thing.” Raising a finger of his own, he taps it against Gemini’s. “As long as you have the strength to do it. Impossible is something to be conquered by the strong.”
Gemini throws back his head and laughs before departing with a cheery goodbye not soon afterwards. In the silence that remains, Leo leans over and buries his head in his hands.
The final hour has struck. All of his efforts and their efforts will be for naught. There will be war. The reservoirs will be restored—no, quadrupled—by the time the inevitable armistice is signed. This is failure. However—there is still some semblance of hope. ELPIS. Leo will mitigate as many loses as possible. No, he will mitigate them all. This is just a temporary setback.
After some time, he finally unfurls himself at Oros’s pecks and makes his way to the outside gardens. Much to his surprise he finds a lone figure waiting there by the lower steps leading up the building. It is Virgo, crouched on the ground and hovering over something. Upon nearing the Virgoan, Leo can make out an un-moving, green-winged small songbird on the ground.
“What is ‘utopia’ for you?”
Virgo’s sudden questions still manage to throw Leo off-guard. There is always more than question hidden in these questions. It’s almost impossible to answer them all.
“If we can’t achieve it here, then where shall we achieve it? It is something worth striving for? Whose utopia should we abide by?”
Whatever utopia we seek, we shall surely achieve—is what Leo wants to say but he holds his tongue.
When Virgo saunters away later, a familiar green-winged small song is warbling in his cradled hands. The original bird still lays dead on the ground.
✦ III ✦
Leo remembers when rain was almost worshiped in the past during long droughts caused by the heat expelled by the reservoirs. Now the rain simply ravages everything. The run-off pulls along dirt, debris, gunpowder, bullets, shrapnel, corpses and drags them all straight through their makeshift camp. The stench is putrid. The sight is ugly. The battle is won, but Leo finds no victory or beauty in this. His presence here has mitigated losses on both sides, but not all of them. Just this morning he’s had to bury the body of a young boy he’d given one of his medals to play with just the day prior.
The failure is an insult to himself. He is the Saint of Victory. His people are proud and honorable—not to be buried beneath two meters of earth because they don’t have the time for a proper burial. He is more than disappointed, but he will hold his head high still.
It did not take long to breach Gemini’s borders from Leo. Gemini’s country is rich in arts be it music, literature, architecture—but they do not know the art of war. Their quality of life is exceptional but this has made their population aged and older—something that Capricorn has pointed out as a tactical advantage. There are not enough young to fight. Yet.
As Leo thinks of this, listens to the marches of the men and women around him, and looks up at the gray clouds, he is approached by a man decorated with numerous medals despite his youthful appearance.
“General Gloria-Ariete,” greets the man with a salute, “I’m glad we have you out here on this operation. I’m certain we wouldn’t be nearly as successful without you, sir.” He eyes Oros who remains resting on Leo’s shoulder even in the battlefield. “Honored, truly.”
This is Leo’s right hand man, Pastor Fletes. Leo has only known him for a short five years—half of a long decade in the eyes of Pastor, most likely—but he has already grown a certain fondness for his earnesty. Whenever Leo finds himself missing Epsilon, he goes to find Pastor’s company. Like Epsilon, Pastor never sheds a tear of doubt about him.
There is a report—a rumor—several days after this victory of a small pocket of Ariesian-Geminian resistance operating within close vicinity to their camp. Despite their small size, they have managed to ambush not only ten of their units but also Leonian civilians seeking refuge back across the border. The death toll of Leo’s people rises, and he cannot stand for it. So, he heads off to handle them. Alone. Fletes offers his assistance but Leo declines it. It’s easier to keep matters discrete, keep vitae from slipping rapidly to a higher state, keep his people safe on his own.
Leo finds the pocket holding out on a small farm that he assumes was once a productive vineyard. All the vines are dried and brown now, their curled husks crunching beneath his leather combat boots as he makes his way through them. Among the toppled posts that once held up the heavy vines, a collection of men and women lay almost hidden among the decrepit vines. Most appear to be dozing.
Leo does not choose to ambush them. No, there is no pride and victory in that. Instead he approaches them head on in broad daylight just as the rain clouds part to let in the sun. There are twenty of them altogether—half Ariesian, half Geminian. As soon as he draws within a meter or so of their vicinity, they all startle, scramble to stands, face him—conductors drawn.
“Identify yourself!” one of the Ariesian women—identifiable by her tanned skin—shouts as she tightens his conducting gloves. She is the commander most likely—or so Leo surmises—given by how all the others look to her expectantly.
“I suggest you surrender immediately,” Leo informs them calmly as he lifts his chin.
Crunching and crackling echoes behind Leo. Upon turning his head, he sees a shimmer of orange light and suddenly roughly twenty other Ariesian and Geminians are standing behind him. External Transmutation, is it? How rare.
“Put down your conductor!” the Ariesian commander shouts.
So, it’s a trap. Leo has expected as much. There’s no way they would have been able to take on so many of his units if they didn’t use underhanded tactics like this. A shadow passes over his head. It is Oros, circling them and watching the soon to be battlefield from the sky above.
“He doesn’t have a conductor,” one of the Geminian soldiers whispers as he looks over Leo from behind the commander. “But look at those medals on his chest. He has to be a high-ranking officer.”
“Will you surrender?” Leo asks with an air of finality as he presses his palms together despite their tensing.
The Geminians bristle.
“Of course a Leonian swaggers in here asking us to surrender when they’re the ones tearing through our country,” one of them mutters. “Look at how smug he is—coming here all by himself without a conductor.”
“Where are the civilians who have come this way?” Leo tries.
“We’ll put you in the ground like we did to the others.”
They have no honor. Their lack of it disgusts Leo. His people are better than this.
The Ariesian commander’s eyes narrow. “Put your hands up.”
Thus, they have made their choice. Sparing them would delay the syzygy by a nanosecond. Not sparing them would extend his people’s—his unit’s, his people’s—lives for a more measurable amount of time. The answer is clear as day. He will not put down his pride or this victory.
Instead of lifting his hands in the air, Leo slowly brings them apart. The Ariesians and Geminians don’t immediately open fire and attack at the movement. No—they stare at the ribbon of gold light flows from one of Leo’s hand to the other. As the ribbon of light solidifies and thins into a series of three blades, the Ariesians and Geminians start to step backwards.
“What the hell is that…?” The Geminian stammers. “Is that—without a conductor—”
He is silenced as Leo flicks his wrists and sends one of the pure vitae blades straight through his skull. When retributive flames of cherry red vitae begin to pop at another woman’s fingertips, Leo sends the second blade to sever her hands from her body. The third blade decapitates her.
Leo waves his hand in the air causally, generating another ribbon of light that solidifies into four blades and five axes. One blade of vitae impales a soldier through the chest. Three other blades swiftly dismember five others. He directs them this way and that—pierce flesh, server head and arm, block vitae ray, dispel vitae flames, straight through the heart, quick and painless—like the head conductor of an orchestra. When several desperate soldiers attempt to duck around the whistling blades and charge forwards, Leo generates a whip of vitae that burns in his palm. With several quick swishes, he servers hand from arm, head from neck, torso from leg—all while commanding the continuously onslaught of his other vitae blades.
In the end, the only one left standing is the Ariesian commander who has burned through so much of his vitae in an attempt to incinerate Leo that she can barely stand. Producing a blade of pure burning gold vitae in his hands, Leo approaches the commander and holds her gaze.
Good. Despite the defeat, there is still pride in the woman’s eyes.
“Monster—” utters the commander right before Leo slices her head clean off.
The head hits the ground, rolling to Leo’s feet. The blood dribbling out from it will be carried off by the coming rain.
At least it is not his people’s blood, Leo thinks, before his stomach curls at the idea. When has his main concern become only his people? He is certain that in the past he proclaimed loudly that every person in Signum was his.
The commander’s fingers twitch suddenly, and the headless corpses lunges for Leo without warning. Scorpio, Leo thinks, playing another game. Before he can bring his blade down on it, the corpse abruptly explodes into a billion pieces. Leo barely manages to fend off the rain of splatter with a large swish of his whip. As the last bits of flesh pitter down in the aftermath, he can make out faint speckles of dark sky blue light floating through the air. Upon looking upwards, he spies a woman floating in the air above him—the source of the vitae. An air Elementalist. A reckless one who seems to enjoy exploding manipulated corpses.
“What’s up?” The woman greets Leo with a two fingered salute as she descends on what appears to be a bow-and-arrow conductor. She chuckles once she lands. “Other than me a couple seconds ago.”
Leo regards her curiously. Her uniform is Sagittarian, but Leo is certain that all their Sagittarian allies are still battling in the south. “You are a bit casual for seeing someone conduct without a conductor, no?”
“Well, your conducting is impressive as always—but don’t get ahead of yourself.” The woman smiles and offers a handshake. “General Ilseong Jin of the Seong Clan—Saint Candidate of Sagittarius, Saint of Arrow and Direction.”
Oh. Another baptism then.
Sagittarius pulls away her hand before Leo can even think to take it. “Yada, yada. Formalities.” She then glances at the smudge of red where commander once had laid and jerks her chin. “Hey, Scorpio, if you’re still listening, how about you stop being creepy? We’re allies, aren’t we? What’s the point of being a bother, my guy?” Shaking her head, she returns her attention to Leo. “I swear Scorpio has lost more marbles than all of us combined in these past few centuries.”
“We all lose things sometimes, no? And we find them in the end,” Leo says after a moment. “It seems as if duty has found you, for example.”
“More like duty was forced into me.” Sagittarius shrugs. When she notices Leo eyeing her bow, she chuckles. “It’s to blend in with the crowd more. I’m not like the rest of you guys, you know? Separating myself from the common folk and all that. I like people.”
“I like my people too, yes? They are mine, after all,” Leo responds. “And what of your people again? I heard that there’s tumult within your own borders”
Sagittarius slams one end of the bow into the ground, stabilizes it, then leans on it with a sigh. “Yeah, my country is going through some ongoing internal turmoil character development right now, but yet they all still want to hit outsiders with sticks and stones.”
“You’re the one who chose to implement that clan system that is causing your issues now, no?”
Jin sighs loudly again. “The idea was to make it so that the familial bond and blood shared through each clan would strengthen their sense of community and whatnot—not make them want to lob their sibling’s head off.” Another sigh. “The emperor is so needy this time too. I remember when he used to be a cute kid.”
“Oh, well, you were never too good at politics,” Leo remarks before placing a hand on her back. “Cheer up, Gigi. We teach politics only on occasion. We don’t meddle in them.” He turns to scan the corpses around him. It was a quick and painless battle, so he does find some semblance of victory in this. Still, he can’t help but think of the rain and the run-off. “Cheer up and help me tag and bury the dead.”
Sagittarius holds up a hand. “‘Bury’ them? Did you not get the memo?” When Leo arches a brow, she explains, “The guys on the drawing board were inspired—so to speak—by Scorpio’s use of mediums on the past two battlefields.” She gestures to the corpses. “They’re hiring out skilled Manipulators to do that kind of conducting. There’s a really good one from Cancer that they’re calling the Corpse Bride.”
The idea and realization makes Leo’s stomach churn, and he bristles at the mere thought. “What?”
“It was your king and queen that suggested it, LeLe.”
Shame once again curls in Leo’s stomach. How could he not know what his people planned? How could his people even think of something like this?
Leo smiles regardless. “Anyways. You’re in good spirits this time, no? A good baptism, then?”
“Well, I just found someone who gives me a good sense of direction,” Sagittarius draws slowly, staring off into the distance. “My advice for you in this whole debacle—yeah, I know you didn’t ask for it—is to find someone who can give you direction too. A compass doesn’t start working automatically on its own, does it? Someone has to put the right pieces together.” Her gaze softens—just slightly. “Say, is the syzygy really all that necessary? It’s not all that bad, is it?”
Leo feels something tug at his chest as he regards Sagittarius.
Sagittarius abruptly whips around and points a mock gun. Speckled dark sky blue light shoots out from her fingertip and tears through the dried vines and fallen posts in the distance. The screech of wind is interrupted by a yelp of pain and then a wet splatter. When the debris settles and the air is calm again, Leo can see the body of a young woman twitching beneath some splintered posts. She must have been hiding.
Sagittarius lowers her mock gun and laughs lightly. “Bang!”
Leo finally sees the Corpse Bride that his king and queen so readily approve of. She’s a small and thin woman hosting an uncountable number of medals. The undead army that she commands stretches to 50. An impressive number of mediums. Nadinaline Delacroix is her name.
Among the woman’s rotting puppets, Leo spies several familiar faces including the boy whom he’d buried earlier in the month. Fallen members of his unit too. Ah, disgusting. There is no victory in this either, and yet Leo has heard endless praise for this manner of conducting. He recalls when war was a much more civilized thing.
Two weeks later, they are pushed back to within their own borders. Leo is not present at the time due to being called down to the front in the south, but he returns as soon as he catches wind.
“Aries,” Sagittarius informs him with a shrug. “Crazy bitch is burning everything in her path.”
Leo sees the Corpse Bride again as he holds the line at the borders, as he shields his people from Aries’s torrenting flames, as he saves both foe and enemy. It is there on the field that he can see the Corpse Bride’s effectiveness in battle. The Ariesians and Geminians hesitate pulling the trigger on familiar faces, and they are pushed back and back. Among the moving corpses, however, is Patron Fletes.
It’s not all for loss though. Even though they have not yet managed to breach and reach the shining Twin Cities of Gemini, they have managed to maintain foothold in Midena.
As Leo combs through the ruins of the city directing civilians to internment camps and soldiers to POW camps, he stumbles across a woman coaxing a child out of a small makeshift shelter made of shrapnel and pieces of roofing.
It is Theta. The sight of her alarms Leo as she’s almost never stepped foot outside of Ophiuchus in this initiation of hers.
“This war has reached the children now,” she explains when Leo approaches. “We’ve all read it in the newspapers. There are child soldiers now, marching on and slaying children. They will be promoted to commanders soon and order the same.”
Leo stops in place.
“It was all for nothing. The reservoirs will be restored and the syzygy will be arriving before this century ends. But the greatest failure is not this but that it is at the hands of the people. Despite our efforts, it is inevitable… The cycle turns but not in the way that we wish it. There really is no hope left—”
Now, Leo tenses.
“—is what I would like to say.” Theta moves to wipe some dirt off of the girl’s cheek. “Omicron made me promise not to give up hope regardless. What a truly ridiculous person—that precious magpie of mine.”
“There was an air raid here two weeks ago,” Theta says, voice quiet. “Omicron perished while helping me in guiding these children towards refuge.” A pause. “We’d already come to terms with our circumstances and what we would do when the other passes long ago, and yet…” The ground beneath Theta’s feet is suddenly wet despite their being no rain. “I can only imagine how painful it was for Omicron when I perished several decades ago… I don’t want to initiate them again just to have them bear witness to this.”
“Theta, I’m sorry for your loss, but this is just a minor setback—”
“I’ve passed on the title of leader to Alpha,” Theta says as she rises to a stand and offers the small girl her hand as the latter emerges from the shelter. “Let’s go, Dahlia.”
“Where?” the girl mumbles, taking Theta’s hand.
Theta turns and begins to saunter away. “Home.”
Northeastern Front, Ariesian-Taurusian Borders
Coordinates, 19.1, 18.6, 2.36. Okör Mountain Rage. Vitae reservoir growth confirmed. Depth with increase, 156,000 kilometers squared.
Coordinates 20.5, 21.2, 1.92. Anyaizeretet. Vitae reservoir formation confirmed. Depth, 72,230 kilometers squared.
Coordinates 32, 19.1, 1.02. Meziské. Vitae reservoir formation confirmed. Depth 12,400 kilometers squared.
General Szendrey Atilla—the Saint Candidate of Taurus—goes over the report he is to give to his prime minister in his head as he watches over the Ariesian-Taurusian camp he has been given temporary command over. Among the many companies resting here are the 113th and 276th—the largest and most skilled companies of the two countries combined.
It is night time now, so most of the company has turned in for some semblance of rest. Well, perhaps it isn’t quite rest but instead restlessness. The ground is shaking and trembling with the Sagittarian air raids two towns over. There is not a single light on in the camp because of this. A single spark in the dark may draw an annihilation. Perhaps that is also why the camp is dead silent.
Much to Taurus’s surprise, however, halfway into the night he sees a woman emerging from one of the bases. There is a bottle of wine in one of her hands and a stuffed packing bag in the other. Behind her comes a man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. They do not see Taurus from where he’s found temporary rest against the outhouse building.
The glasses-wearing man grabs at the woman’s arm and pulls her backwards. “Alrighty, Gabe, you had a bit too much to drink. Come on—”
“I’m done. I’m done. I’m done!” She snaps at the him and shoves him away. “I’m done, Izsak.”
The man—Izsak—chuckles. “You don’t mean that. You just had a bad day—”
She swings her bottle wildly, forcing him backwards. “A bad day?! Easy for you to say when all you do is sit on the back lines and conjure weapons all day!”
“Do you know what happened in the last battle?” Gabe spits. “They made me work together with an earth Elementalist! He trapped all the civilians with his conducting and I-I had to burn them into nothing. There were kids, Izsak—kids! But high command said that they would just add to the enemy forces in the end if we let them live and at the war would never end if we let them go… And I-I believed them.” She shakes her head, eyes wild. “I can’t take this. I’d rather—”
Suddenly Izsak rushes forward with a raised hand and slaps Gabe hard across the face. The sharp sound echoes through the night but is lost to the distant booms of the air raids. Gabe drops her bag and holds her cheek, wide-eyed.
“Gabe, get a damn hold of yourself!” Izsak grabs her by the scruff and shakes her hard. “You can’t just wax lyrical to me about being villains and minions and bringing peace to Signum just to run away now! You made a promise and now you have to keep it. I believe in you, Gabe. You’re one of the few things I believe in out here. The commanders are terrible? So take the command from them! That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?”
Gabe stares at him, stunned. Then, she hangs her head. “Saints. I’m sorry, Izsak. I—”
There’s a pause.
“It’s alright… We all have our moments, Gabe.” Izsak pats her on the back and pries the bottle out of her hand. “Now put this thing away so we can save it for when we bring our masterplan of peace into action.” He throws an arm over shoulders and leads her back to the bunker.
How pitiable—them, acting as if they are on center stage of this theater, when in reality they are merely extras. They cannot change this impenetrable fortress that they’ve built themselves.
A couple days later, Taurus sees that duo again causing a commotion. The man—Izsak—is tailing a medical officer with bushy brown hair through the camp. The woman from the previous night—Gabe—watches Izsak and the woman with amusement alongside a Piscese man who looks just as entertained.
“Izsak, how many times do I have to lay it out for you?” the retreating woman exclaims as she winds around the camp. “I am not interested! You’re too short! Gabrielle, put sense into him! He should be resting instead of tailing me around every day!”
“Elizabeta, I promise I will fix whatever issues you have with me!” Izsak calls out to the woman in his pursuit. “It’s worth it for you!”
Elizabeta stops short, swivels around to face him. “You’ll fix your height?”
“I’ll drink ten gallons of milk a day. No—I’ll see a Transmutationist about it!” Izsak takes hold of her hand and gets on one knee and pulls out a small metal band from his pocket. “So please marry me.” He adds with smile. “Fifth time is the charm?”
Instead of answering, Elizabeta reaches over into a crate that is being carried by two soldiers. She pulls out a plastic bag filled with white liquid and hands it to him. It’s a bag of milk. The surrounding men and women laugh.
Taurus pities them for being so desperate to find some semblance of happiness out here.
When Taurus is checking up on the reservoir hidden in the mountain overpass several kilometers away from camp, he comes across a lone man cloaked in a white hood standing before it. Taurus is rather alarmed by the sight because no one should know about this recently formed reservoir.
Upon noticing his approach, the man turns and smiles. “Oh? Is that Taurus?” He gestures to himself. “It’s me—Alpha. Well, Proteus.”
Taurus stares. He has not seen any of them outside of Ophiuchus since the incident nearly 500 years ago. At first, he is almost tempted to greet the man casually and feels the faint need to catch up with him. Then he remembers that seeing anyone—especially one of them—near this site is alarming.
Taurus allows his vitae so slide over his hands and lifts them. “What are you doing here?”
“You didn’t always use to be so quick to jump to fight,” Proteus notes. “Is it the war?” He laughs. “I was just here wondering if I could do something big to this reservoir that’ll catch people’s eyes. To slow down the syzygy, right?”
Taurus lowers his hands in confusion. “What…? Slow it down…?”
Proteus moves away from the reservoirs. “The matter is that I don’t think I care anymore. I should pretend for a while though, shouldn’t I? Maybe I’ll care if I pretend enough?”
When Taurus doesn’t answer him, Proteus brushes past him. Taurus lets him go out of pity.
A week later there is commotion in the medical tent of the base. The recent battle along the border of Taurus and Cancer has been exceptionally devastating to their forces. The dead number in the hundreds, the injured in the thousands. Taurus is no healer so he can do nothing but watch them and calculate how much the reservoirs have increased since then.
Going over the numbers in his head, Taurus visits the tents to discern what the fuss is about. There is medical bed after medical bed lined up in endless rows inside the tent. The stench is stomach-churning and the sounds of groaning men and women grating to the ears.
On one of those beds lays the man from earlier—Izsak. He is looking worse for wear, and there is an open wound on his chest. On one side of his bed sits Gabe whose head is wrapped in bandages and whose arm is slung in a cast. On the other side of Izsak’s bed stands the medical officer from earlier—Wtorek Elizabeta.
“Izsak, are you insane?” The woman sighs, running a shaking hand through her head before holding her gloved hands over his chest. Warm light buzzes out from them. “You’re literally bleeding out and you’re doing this again—”
“Elizabeta, I love you more than anything in this world,” Izsak presses, wincing as the wound there begins to slowly inch towards closing itself up. “You’re strong, you’re fierce, you’re kind, you’re funny, you laugh at my jokes—”
“—because no one else laughs at them.” Elizabeta sighs, pulling her hands away once the wound is closed. “Would you just listen to me—”
“I will listen,” Izsak presses. “I’ll be taller, I’ll stop bleeding out—you ask it and I’ll do it. You’re my commanding officer now. Ma’am, I can’t guarantee that you’ll always be happy when you’re with me, but I promise you that I’ll always be there to try and make you laugh and I’ll always be listening—”
“Stop it!” Elizabeta snaps, throwing down her hands. “Izsak, do you know how many people propose out here only for one of them to die a battle afterwards?” Her voice cracks, her frustrated expression breaks into one of anguish. “I’ve lost my family out here on these fronts. You’re asking me to start another one I’m going to lose immediately afterwards…? I won’t be able to take it….”
Wide-eyed, Izsak reaches out towards her face. She flinches for a moment, but allows him to wipe away the tear that is falling down her cheek.
“I promise as long as the ring that is on my finger is yours,” he says, “I will never ever die—as long as you promise me that you’ll never die either as long as my ring is on yours.”
There is a long stretch of silence.
Elizabeta looks at him with incredulity, eyes widening. “So… you’re guilt-tripping me into marriage. If I don’t marry you, there’ll be a chance that you’ll die.”
Izsak blinks. He frowns. “Well, no… When you put it like that—”
“Fine.” Elizabeta sighs, closing her hand around his. “I’m a doctor, after all. I can’t have a patient dying on me because of something like that.”
Izsak stares at her uncomprehendingly before his cheeks become red. “I? What? Really?” He fumbles around the bed. “Wait, no. I need to get my ring. To make it official. To make it perfect. For you, Eliza.” He pauses mid-search, eyes widening. “Damn, I think I dropped it on the field earlier. Wait. I can conjure another one—”
Elizabeta holds up a finger and presses it up to his lips. “You’re not the best at conjuring pretty things, so maybe it’s just best to buy a ring for now.”
Izsak pouts. “But it won’t be the same—”
Elizabeta silences him by leaning in close and pressing her lips against his. The ones who are still conscious in the tent and the surrounding medical officers temporarily break out into whooping cheers. Gabe claps loudly in the background.
Taurus watches the newly engaged pull themselves into each other’s arms as the atmosphere warms. For once, he does not feel pity.
Sông Hồng, Sao Clan Territory, Sagittarius
There are rumors of all sorts of monsters on the battlefield now. A golden demon who tears through foes with a cruel blade and leaves its victims a dismembered mess. A fiery witch who burns even children to cinders. An aerial hawk drops not only conducting grenades on sheltering cities but also people from ten meters high. A woman who drinks the blood of babies.
Capricorn has concerns about the other eleven. They have been in many wars before but not one of this magnitude and not of this length. He is fine-pressed for the syzygy but only because it falls under the natural order of things. Excess indulgence in the affairs surrounding it is rather unsightly to him. There is needless cruelty being added here.
He thinks of these this matter as he walks alongside his tanks that flatten the rice fields of Sagittarius. The first platoon they sent out to this region has managed to hold the line two kilometers in. Now they await reinforcements.
There are three companies under Capricorn’s command. There are individuals here that he knows will do much for Capricorn’s future. First there is the vocal Marionette Engel whose natural charisma draws people close to her. Then there is Dämon Forstchritt whose recent contributions to conductor development have accelerated many of their campaigns throughout the war. Martin von Spiel also holds some promise as a commander, although his rhetoric in recent years has been unfavorable.
When the platoon finally makes it to their designated checkpoint, Capricorn is startled then contempt to find that it has been already overrun by enemy reinforcements that set up a strong almost impenetrable blockade. Then, the air raids begin and he is forced back with his companies. This is why ‘on time’ is never truly on time.
On their path to retreat and recuperation, Capricorn finds survivors holed away in the remnants of a small village that has nearly been devastated by the air raids.
According to the briefings he’s heard, this surviving large unit has been saved by the acts of single commander who was injured during the confrontation. As Capricorn listens to the tale of valor, thrill and horror, he comes to realize that these people must have come into contact with either Sagittarius or Leo. Needless excess cruelty once again.
Capricorn greets the heroic commander where he rests guarded by his men in one of the faltering buildings.
“What’s your name?” Capricorn asks the man after returning the offered salute.
“Ludwig,” the young man croaks. “Ludwig Waltz.”
✦ IV ✦
Much to Leo’s indignation, he has been injured numerous times throughout the war. Nothing that would be deemed fatal, of course. A bullet wound there, a vitae-blade through the knee here, and even a sloppily removed arm once. It is still an embarrassment—to even be injured by someone else. He is the inspiration of his people, after all. He is the reason they continue to muster up the courage and strength to fight. Or so the newspapers say. Recently reading them has left a sour taste in his mouth. He is being put on a deserved pedestal, but something about where the light on this pedestal falls does not seem right.
It seems as if each new generation entering the war is better and better at killing. He has checked in with the aged king and queen, and they don’t seem to mind the development. Instead they have shown only relief at the reservoirs that are now beginning to manifest around their country. It’s disgusting—
No, no, no. These are still his people, he has to remind himself. They are his victory.
Among these developments, as the new year begins, Leo reaches a realization. Even when he gets as close to Theta’s black-painted gates as possible, Theta no longer answers his call.
✦ V ✦
Leo slowly drifts through the small village that his unit has just reclaimed from the Ariesians. He feels as if he is in a dream. The adrenaline pumping through his veins hours earlier has taken with it his earlier vigor and clarity. If it were not for Oros constantly
After some hours of wandering, Leo finds himself abruptly ambushed by a small figure brandishing a glass shard. It is a child. A girl with wild dark curls and vivid green eyes. Leo catches her by the arm and holds her at a distance as she continues swinging the makeshift blade at him—at least that is until he offers her the chocolate bar from his pocket. After she takes it and devours it whole, she grabs him by the arms and leads him through the twisting town.
Eventually, he follows the girl into a small house with caved in tiled roofing. As soon as he steps inside, he is overwhelmed by a stagnant and putrid smell but he forces himself forward regardless. In disbelief, he watches as the girl walks to the small table at the center of the house. At the table rests two rotting corpses bent awkwardly over the table.
It’s disturbing to say the least.
With some difficulty, Leo manages to coax her out of the house. It takes some time before she finally tells him her name.
“Maria,” she says, eyes wide and almost vacant. “Just Maria.”
To the orphanage she will go, he thinks. He is certain that if Theta were still around, she would take this child in with her to some place safe. Theta would teach this girl many things and raise her to be wise and kind. However, Theta is no longer around.
At the thought of his former teacher, Leo recalls his conversation with her years prior. Responsibility, memory, regret, true victory. Thus, he makes a decision.
“Of course, I’d sneak out for you, Leo! It’s for you, after all! Plus, I haven’t been out of Ophiuchus once since I’ve woken up. Say, shall we go sight see a bit afterwards? Oh, I know there’s a war, Leo, but—”
Leo is rowing together with Epsilon in a boat down a river that runs adjacently to a small vitae stream. He has taken a temporary leave for this journey with her. Bringing Epsilon out beyond the protected borders of Ophiuchus did take some effort, but it was nothing too difficult for Leo. Leo knows despite everything that he can still do anything.
Finally, they reach the point in the river adjacent to the stream that is designated in the journal. Epsilon fastens on her conducting gloves and reaches for a spot in the vitae stream that glows an unnatural gold—
“I wonder what we hid here—”
Leo grabs her before she slips and plunges headfirst into the river. “Be careful, my dear.”
Epsilon’s cheeks flush but she nods and carefully places one gloved hand just above the golden glow across the thin strip of earth that separates vitae from water. She then moves the other to Leo’s temple. First there is nothing. And then—
And then Leo remembers it—that year. 1631. The promise that was broken. The selfishness, the desperation in the eyes of his people, the lack of awareness of their wrong doings. He realizes it then—the truth that he has been hiding from himself out of shame: these are no people of his. There is no possible way he has raised a country and raised people who are this filthy, disgusting, selfish, dishonorable, desperate to the point of absolute grossness. Finally, he embraces it.
From the beginning, his efforts with ELPIS have been pointless and hypocritical. There is no such thing as playing two sides. Only one or the other. Shame and embarrassment curl in his stomach only to be replaced by bitter, burning hatred.
These cruel people who bite and beg from the hand that gives them—they deserve an ending like the syzygy. The syzygy in itself would be a mercy for them. He is not a cruel god, after all.
When Leo comes back to himself, he finds Epsilon’s body torn through with numerous blades of pure gold vitae. It appears as if during his personal anguish, he has accidentally taken it out on his dear Epsilon. But it is better for her not to see what comes next. If Epsilon witnesses it, Leo is sure she too will be disappointed in the end.
He spies Oros watching from him where she is perched on the shoreline—ever so silent.
The other eleven are gathered with Leo here now in the remnants of this once proud dining hall that hosted balls throughout the 1800s. Now it is decrepit with peeled carpeting and a caved in ceiling. The infamous Delarona chandelier is in fragments on the ground.
Libra stands at the center of them all holding two pieces of paper that are burnt at the edges. Despite the damage, their message are still legible:
The country of Ophiuchus now officially declares war on the following parties: Aries, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Pisces, Aquarius, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra, Cancer, Taurus.
We will not stand for this injustice and cruelty inflicted on innocent men, women, children, and people using cruel and injustice weapons over a resource that in itself is cruel and unjust.
The next reads,
On this day March 25, 1928, the states of Aries, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Pisces, Aquarius, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra, Cancer, and Taurus have come together to lay down arms and face a greater enemy that shows itself in the one neutral country of Ophiuchus. Together they shall stand as the United Front.
“From the very beginning they haven’t been fully holding to our agreement.” Taurus breaks the silence, shaking his head. “Several years ago I came across Proteus at one of my reservoirs speaking vaguely about stopping the syzygy on his own. I thought nothing of it, but in this context…”
Leo remains silent, an unbearable shame unfurling in his stomach. How foolishly prideful of him to work alongside them. All he has now is disappointment he is too ashamed to share with the others.
Scorpio throws her head back and laughs so hard that tears begin leaking from her eyes. “Ophiuchus and the rest of them have decided to play a bit dirty despite all of their talk. They’re fools, really. Everything that they’ve tried to do has already been undone. They have returned to the beginning as is natural and expected. Another cycle will turn.” She hums. “Well, I would be all for letting them follow their silly little pursuits if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve been forcefully delaying the syzygy. That’s not how this works.”
“We’ll simply take an equitable punishment for their grievance,” Libra says, calm and collected. “It is only what’s fair.”
Pisces, who has changed faces once again, offers a smile. “I have a suggestion.”
✦ VI ✦
The great white pillars that Leo had admired now lay toppled on their sides. Columns of smoke have replaced them. The water fountain that children once ran around and the benches where their parents watched them from have been wiped clean from the courtyard. In their place are dark red stains, bullet casings, piles of ashes.
The city has been seized. The Ophiuchians—whether soldier, whether civilian, whether man, whether child—are fleeing, but they will soon all be caught. Foolish people. They will be turned into—
Silently, Leo makes his way to the heart of the city. He passes by Ariesian, Taurusian, Geminian, Leonian, Sagittarian, Libran on his journey. They all lift their canteens to cheer at him as he passes by before sharing drinks with former enemies over corpses. This is the praised United Front that the executives of all their countries rave and exalt about. How easily their emotions sway and change towards their enemies and foes. It’s putrid and disgusting.
Eventually, Leo crosses the great white bridge leading to the great white building above all those thirteen reservoirs. Unsurprisingly, there are still some of them here. After all—they can’t move the one who lays behind those great white doors at the back of the room, and they have a sense of loyalty. The others who are missing must have fled with their resistors or perhaps they have been slain during the siege. They are the senseless hope that remains.
As Leo steps before them all, they tense and crowd towards the door. Their conductors are poised in their hands but Leo knows that only a select few pose any sort of threat. So, he dismantles them first during their pause of uncertainty by whipping out his vitae and slicing through them with blades and spears of gold.
The others react immediately, drawing blades across their palms and flinging out their hands—
“Leo, how could you—”
—but Leo silences them all with one last flourish of his hand. Their bodies hit the floor unmoving. He moves forward pass them as white wisps of vitae rise from their corpses like smoke. Then, he stops in front of the great white doors he’s never entered through out of respect. Studying the lettering that’s chiseled into its frame, he pushes them open and finds himself stepping into a nearly empty chamber. Letters and pictures are carved into the marble of the surrounding walls, and the only light permeating through the darkness comes from an opening in the ceiling. Natural sunlight.
Beneath that light on a stone table he finds a body that is barely identifiable as human in form. Its skin is stretch thin over its bony features, and faint white strands of hair spill out from its scalp. A pale skeleton that was once a lively human. Embedded at the center of its chest, Leo finds a familiar glass shard. Radiating out from the shard pulsates faint, shimmering dark pink lines.
The skeleton’s eye lids slowly move open as Leo draws nearer, and it meets Leo’s gaze. Then, it smiles.
With a grimace, Leo reaches out and drives the shard farther and farther into its chest until the skeleton of the past is consumed wholly by the dark pink color.
Leo does not return to his unit after he is finished with his task. Instead he winds down the marble staircase at the very back of that room and reaches the bottom level where the reservoirs reside.
Most of the others have returned here already as they’d sensed the war nearing its end—or perhaps because they were not strong enough to bare the action he has just taken. Now it is time for him to do the same.
He slowly walks along the built stone path that divides each reservoir from the other and stops before the one that he can feel faintly pulling and calling out to him. Its levels are lower than the others since most of the vitae is inside of him. But this will soon be fixed. Taking in a deep breath, he walks forwards and forward sunlit the burning hot vitae laps at his feet. He continues on even as he feels the vitae from the pool trying to worm its way into his body. He will not allow it.
Once the vitae laps at his knees, he produces a golden blade that burns raw in his hand. Letting out his held breath, he plunges it into his chest. The pain is almost unbearable and he can feel warmth from his blood spilling out into his hands and into the reservoir. The flow reverses a moment afterwards, however, and his blood and vitae begin to crawl back into him. In response, he merely plunges the blade into his chest again and again and again—until the amount being released into the reservoir overcomes what is pulled back into him. All of him—spilling out and emptying for another person to take on. A cyclic turn.
Eventually, his human container can no longer bear the endless tearing and he can feel himself crumble beneath the weight. Finally, he can feel that it is enough and falls backwards into the pool.
The last thing he sees is Oros circling above his head like a halo or maybe an omen.
Maria gasped as she pulled away from Epsilon’s hand. Her mind buzzed with everything that the man had just shown her. The fragments, the promise, the war. She couldn’t fully comprehend it at all. It almost felt as if in those short couple of seconds, she had lived out decades.
“Oros’s memories,” Epsilon informed her with a sympathetic smile. “I think I collected them from her after she came to me in my initiation after that. I’ve been storing it ever since.” His smile softened. “It’s alright, Leo. I forgive you. You had to, right?”