Maria has met with Proteus—someone who has also touched Jericho’s past—one month ago; and after a brief fight and taking her crew from her, he has invited her to meet him once again at the place of her origin in one month. Morandi has also fallen ill since then as has Werner causing Maria to question her own philosophy.
Now with just Epsilon, Albatross, Simon, El, Conta (Beta), and Andres at her physical, Maria sets off to find her place of origin.
The copper, gold, and silver bells clamored above Maria’s head. Low, high, dull, sharp—each sound blending into the next. Spying up at those brass wonders, Maria stood with her back straight and her head held high as the man in black robes walked down the line she stood in. When he brushed past her, she started bouncing on the balls of her feet.
Today was different. She could feel it. She knew the boys and girls flanking her left and right could feel it too. She only wished Conta would be able to join her here in this temple today to experience it too. Sadly, Conta was part of the orphanage’s lower tier ranking of children, so she had to stay back with the other lower-tiered children inside the orphanage adjacent to the temple.
“What are you so excited, Maria?”
Maria looked forward to find the robe-wearing man—Priest Primera-Freeza—now standing in front of her with his hands clasped behind his back. He was bent over her, allowing her to see the crow’s-feet at the corner of his eyes and the strands of gray hair popping out from his blonde comb-over.
“What’s there not to be excited about?” Maria returned. “This day brings something new to me, no?”
“And what if this day doesn’t bring something new?”
“Then I’ll make something new!”
A grin broke across Primera-Freeza’s face as he placed a hand on her head. “Good, Maria, that’s very good. This world is meant for you to enjoy and guide, isn’t it…?” He mumbled under his breath as he pulled away—“It’s only sensible since you helped build it up to this point… Or at least you’ll have the gracious chance of becoming the one who did.”
Without elaborating, Primera-Freeza directed Maria and the other girls and boys in the line to the pews pressed alongside the far left side wall. Maria took her seat in the front row and far left corner as directed, not paying any mind to the others who squeezed in beside her. Instead, her gaze went to the stained glass windows on the wall. They were almost identical to the windows on the rightmost wall and depicted scenes of a pair of twins from birth to adulthood. One window portrayed the two holding hands as babies. Another showed one taking up a crown and the other a sword. The last showed only one of the twins remaining and standing alone with open arms—but Maria couldn’t tell which twin it was.
Eventually, Maria got bored of studying the windows and turned her attention ahead to the back of the temple. A familiar marble-white statue stood there with wide-spread arms. Just behind it were a set of windowed-doors that led to the flat grassy tip of the cliff. Beyond that, Maria could barely see the thin blue line of the sea.
“Children,” Primera-Freeza said suddenly as he stood in front of the statue and gestured to the front doors. “Please warmly welcome the children from the Gloria House just two cities over and their caretaker.”
Maria craned her neck as the back doors of the temple creaked open. In walked a row of unfamiliar boys and girls headed by a woman dressed in black robes similar to Primera-Freeza’s. As the boys and girls behind the woman filtered into the pews on the right side wall, the woman took a stand in front of the statue beside Primera-Freeza and smiled brightly.
“Thank you for having me here today, lovelies,” she said. “My name is Alana Angelo-Dorado. I’m bringing my children here to play some fun games with you, okay? Some fun, competitive, friendly games. So—shall we begin?”
Then began the fun activities Maria had been waiting for all day. Everyone from the Primera house including Maria herself was pitted against others from the Angelo house. They gathered together in front of the statue and played various quiz games with topics ranging from the history of Signum to Monadism to war tactics. Maria loved these games and tried to answer first every single time. Usually when these types of games were played in her orphanage, Maria would be fifty or so quiz points ahead of the others in the house. Now, however, Maria found herself neck-to-neck with a girl from the Angelo house.
“Who was the queen during the year 1630—”
“Stelleona III of Lorenzia,” Maria answered quickly.
“—and how many siblings did Stelleona have?”
The other girl raised her hand and answered immediately, “She had only one sibling, and that was her brother Leonce of Lorenzia.”
“Yellow,” Maria answered the next question correctly right after.
“Zephyr of Sagittarius,” answered the girl to the following question just as quickly.
“Yielding with dignity.”
“Great Leonhart Gloria-Ariete.”
“Checks and balances.”
“Poincaré recurrence theorem.”
This mysterious girl who was holding her own stood as tall as Maria herself and had a head of loose brown curls tamed by a bun. Her features were sharp and her brow delicate. Somehow, she reminded Maria of those royals the Primera-Freeza would lecture about during history lessons.
Once the game ended in a tie and they were given a fifteen-minute break, Maria excitedly slipped over to the Angelo side of the temple to ask for the girl’s name but the girl was nowhere in sight.
“Wow…” some from the Angelo house whispered as Maria made her way back to her own side after a fruitless search. “She tied with Araceli. She’s amazing.”
Araceli, Maria thought with a grin. Her name was Araceli.
As evening approached and the games started to wind down, ten Espada entered the temple and flanked the left and right sides of the walls in front of the stained windows. While all the other boys and girls were pulled back into the pews, Maria was pulled in front of the statue by Primera-Freeza.
“This is Maria Gloria-Primera, the best out of our entire care house,” he said, pushing Maria forward. “I believe she may be the best potential saint candidate we’ve ever had the glorious chance to lay eyes upon.”
Angelo-Dorando smiled genially, pushing forward Araceli. “This is Araceli Gloria-Angelo, the best of our entire care house as you could see. I have a feeling you might reconsider your words once you see her in action.”
Following this, both Maria and Araceli were handed wooden sticks and turned to face each other. Maria beamed at this and offered the other girl a wave. Araceli merely inclined her head. As Angelo-Dorando moved backwards, Primera-Freeza moved forwards and lined up their wooden swords so their tips were touching each other. These steps were very familiar to Maria, and so she tightened her grip on the hilt of the toy sword. Araceli seemed to be familiar with these steps as well since she tightened grip on her own sword too.
Primera-Freeza tapped both of their blades before quickly walking back to the front of the pews alongside Angelo-Dorando. He clapped his hands, signaling them to begin.
Maria took two steps back and realized Araceli had taken two steps back too. Marveling at this wonder, Maria tossed the wooden sword up in the air and caught it just as Araceli lunged forward. She successfully blocked the other girl’s swinging blade before dragging her sword up swiftly with all her might. Much to Maria’s surprise, the maneuver didn’t force the blade out of Araceli’s hand. Instead, Araceli locked their blades then slid her sword down until their hilts locked. She then pushed forward, forcing Maria back, back, back—until Maria swept her feet beneath Araceli’s, and sent the girl tumbling to the floor. Araceli, however, broke her fall with a roll and hopped back up onto her feet with her sword steady and ready.
Whispers of surprise from the left and right sides of the temple reached Maria’s ears as children from both sides began to rise from their seats and stare.
“She’s holding against Maria,” the boys and girls on Maria’s side whispered.
“She’s holding out against Araceli,” the boys and girls on Araceli’s side muttered.
Maria stared at Araceli in awe before breaking out into a grin and hopping on the balls of her feet. “You’re amazing! You’re really amazing!” No other person in her orphanage had ever held their ground like this against her in years.
Swinging the toy sword in her hand once more, Maria darted forward. She arrived at Araceli’s side in an instant—swinging her blade up in an arc and nicking Araceli’s chin. At the same time, Araceli shoved the hilt of her blade forward, cracking Maria on the nose. Head spinning and blinking the stars out from her vision, Maria stumbled backwards and shook her head. Once her vision cleared, she registered Araceli rushing at her again. With a laugh, she pulled up to block the upcoming blow.
Clack! Clack! Smack! Clack! Smack!
Their wooden blades slapped against each other again and again. Sometimes one of their blades would slip through the other’s defenses and smack against an exposed limb causing a sweltering bruise to form. Other times one of their swords would soar above the other’s head and clipped their ear.
Clack! Clack! Smack! Smack!
They danced towards the pews and over them as the children there dispersed. Soon they were back to back against the stained glass windows as the Espadas skirted around them. Through the fervor clouding her mind, Maria could see the awe, admiration, and reverence in each Espadas’ eyes—just as she could see the fervor in Araceli’s eyes.
Yes, Araceli was enjoying this just as she was. Excitement. Something different—finally.
Maria pulled back in surprise as did Araceli as the tips of both of their swords broke off from their hilts and went flying in opposite directions. Panting heavily, Maria tossed her hilt to the side as did Araceli. Maria then flashed a smile and wiped the sweat from her brow. Araceli shook her head in response and lunged forward—with her fist this time. Maria reflected the gesture and managed to crack the girl on the jaw just as her own jaw was cracked by Araceli’s fist. While her punch sent Araceli flying backwards, Araceli’s sent Maria flying backwards. Maria was caught in the arms of the Espada behind her, but she pulled away from them and hopped back onto her feet. Across from her, she saw Araceli do the same.
Laughing wildly at the exhilaration and filled with an intense desire to not lose, Maria charged forward towards Araceli again only to be held back by an Espada. Maria whipped to them, eyes sharp, teeth bared beneath her lips. Before she could make any moves, however, Primera-Freeza approached her and placed a hand on her head.
“How about we calm down, Maria?” he asked calmly with a smile, sinking down to his knees and cupping her face in his hands. “You want to make me happy, don’t you?”
As Maria stared into the man’s eyes, her hammering heart slowly began to still. After some time passed, she stopped resisting the Espadas holding her still and instead turned to them and flashed a smile and wave. When she turned to glance at Araceli, she found Angelo-Dorando placing a hand on top of Araceli’s head. Araceli seemed calm now too.
“Araceli,” Angelo-Dorando asked, gesturing to Maria, “do you think you can ever beat her?”
“Of course, I can,” Araceli replied, lifting her chin as she held Maria’s gaze evenly from the distance. “I can do anything.”
Primera-Freeza proceeded to whisper gently as he gestured to Araceli. “Maria, do you think you can ever beat her?”
“Beat her?” Maria tilted her head. “Well, yes, I can, but I would rather make her mine, yes? She’s amazing!”
Primera-Freeza grinned while a frown pressed down on Angelo-Dorando’s lips.
In the lapse of conversation, the whispers and clamors of all the others seated in the pews became cacophonic.
“You shouldn’t envy the great but be happy that you’re able to be in their presence,” Primera-Freeza spoke over them. “Be happy that the rest of you were able to witness two shining stars competing in the same night sky that all of you shall become.”
* * *
When lunch arrived, Maria swept up a handful of croquetas from the dining table the Espada had rolled out at the center of the temple and then headed to the orphanage just across the dirt path outside. She approached one of the low windows of the building and climbed up on the crate stacked just below it. After she knocked on the window, a familiar girl with mousy brown hair popped up on the opposite side and swung the window open.
Maria shoved all but one of the croquetas into her face. “Here you go, Conta! For you!”
“O-Oh, wow…!” Conta murmured, accepting them with reverence “These look amazing! Thank you, Maria! Thank you! Can I share it with some of the others?”
Maria nodded and waved brightly in turn before turning away. As she hopped down from the crate and prepared to make her way back into the temple, she spied a familiar girl sitting beneath the tree at the very edge of the cliff.
“Hi Araceli!” Maria greeted the girl with a wave as she approached. “Did you eat already? What are you doing out here? It’s more fun inside, no?”
Araceli looked her up and down and narrowed her eyes as Maria sat down beside her. “And what were you doing out here?”
“I was just bringing food to my Conta,” Maria replied.
“You talk with students that aren’t at our tier?” Araceli frowned. “There are tiers in your place too, right?”
“Yes, there are tiers at our care house too.” Maria nodded after some thought. “Why?”
“They teach you us not to associate with lower tiers, don’t they?” Araceli pressed. “We have to keep them at an honorable distance. They’re below us, and we need to set an example or something. They’re to be our night sky to allow us to shine. If we get too close, our brightness will be tarnished.”
Those words did sound familiar.
Maria shrugged. “I like them, so I spend time with them, yes? I don’t think about it too much.” After rocking back and forth for a moment, she laughed and leaned forward. “Say, since we both tied and since they say we’re both potential stars, who do you think out of the two of us will be the real star?”
Araceli scoffed. “Star? Night sky? I don’t care about stupid things like saint candidacy or the Espadas. Don’t you see the adults are just making us into what they want?”
“What are you saying?” Maria laughed. “I’m only what I want to be.”
“That’s what they tell you to think,” Araceli mumbled, pulling away. “It’s creepy. I thought you were different, but you’re just like the others.”
“You do not like your priest?” Maria inquired.
“Of course, I like her. I love her.” Araceli frowned “But…Why make us say stupid things like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ after everything? Why? What for? It’s weird and creepy. And calling us ‘not up to being a star’ when we don’t do things the way they want us to?” She threw her hands up in the air as her cheeks reddened. “I just don’t want to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ after everything! I want to speak like myself!”
“It’s a bit fun speaking like this, no?”
“Are you just a sore loser, Araceli?” Maria laughed. She curled a lock of hair around her finger as she listened to the bells rumble out from the temple. “If you don’t want to become a star or the night sky or even both, what do you want to become?”
“I want to be an adventurer,” Araceli responded, lifting her chin.
Araceli nodded. “Like in the Tale of Leopold and the Sea.”
Maria leaned in close to her. “I’ve never heard of that story before… Do they read that book to you at your place? That’s different…”
“No… it’s not a book that the priests read to us….”
Maria leaned in even closer. “Then how…?” She gasped. “You snuck it in! That’s amazing! Tell me how! I want to know—”
Araceli smacked her hand over Maria’s mouth in alarm, before letting out a sigh. “Okay…” she drew slowly, lifting her chin and looking a bit haughty. “But don’t tell anyone or I’ll kill you—”
“You will have a hard time killing me if you can’t even beat me, no?”
“You can’t even beat me,” Araceli retorted. “Anyways, a man with an eye patch gave the book to me. He came to me when I was out in the yard outside of our care house. He told me about the adventures he went on…. He told me about the world outside of all of this.” She gestured around them before clasping her hands together. “It was… amazing. The book’s about a girl named Leona who Leopold—a sailor—takes out to the sea on adventures. She follows him and fights golden beasts, white sea serpents, and even twin fish that are so big they almost swallowed the world whole!”
“Woah…” Maria had never ever heard of anything like that before. The concept seemed completely foreign but captivating.
Araceli studied Maria’s face before rubbing her nose and leaning back against the trunk. “I want to be Leona.” Her eyes sparkled. “To be taken on an adventure across the world! Just talking about it is making me excited—so much more exciting than our boring fight—”
Maria tilted her head. “Is it not better to go on your own adventure? Instead of being pulled along by someone else’s?”
Araceli squinted. “Why? What’s wrong with wanting to be Leona?”
“Because you could be Leopold!” Maria exclaimed. “Everyone and anyone wants to be Leopold!”
“Not everyone thinks like you, you know…” Araceli mumbled.
Maria tilted her head at this and shrugged. “Well, instead of being a saint candidate, I could be Leopold instead. Or I can be both!”
“Well, you do that then,” Araceli huffed. “I’m going to be Leona.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
“The man with the eye patch. He promised to take me with him.”
“It’s dangerous to keep returning to this place.”
Maria lifted her head from the bed. It took her a moment to realize that she wasn’t at Francis’s place in Werner’s room but instead in a private room at the main hospital in Comientzo. It was not Werner who laid in front of her but Morandi. The older man was quite pale and there was an IV drip connected to his mid arm. Yesterday he’d been complaining loudly and entertainingly about back pain from the ‘awful, terrible mattress,’ but now he was like this again—pale, sweating, and occasionally calling for someone named ‘Maritza.’
“Scorpio will find us quickly,” Conta continued from behind Maria, “if we remain in one place too long.” She gestured to Albatross and Simon who sat along the wall behind them. El and Andres who sat to their left exchanged looks. Epsilon who sandwich between the two pairs pointed to his face in slight confusion. “They shouldn’t even be here. Have you no sense of caution?”
“They want to be here, so they are here, yes?” Maria replied. She glanced back at Simon and Albatross. “They are not afraid and neither am I.”
“Lack of fear is not bravery,” Conta replied evenly. “It’s egoism.” She sighed, crossing her arms. “Either way, after everything that’s happened in the past few days, bravery is not what we need at the moment.”
Maria didn’t like this situation at all. Werner was hers, and Morandi was hers too. And Conta and Lita and Emmanuel and Giorgio and—
Andres abruptly came to her side, shoving a notepad he conjured in her face.
When will we leave? We cannot afford to miss the deadline that ELPIS Leader set. We have not found any of the children from the orphanages.
El approached him and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. He looked over at her, held her gaze, then lowered his notebook. He crossed something out, scribbled something else on it, before flipping it over for Maria to see.
I’m relieved to retrieve other children but the others also need to be found. We can’t miss it.
Maria looked between them. “Oh? Did you two become closer recently?”
El cleared her throat.
Andres merely scribbled down another note. My heart lies with the pillars. We should return soon.
Andres—as Atienna said—was very devout and dedicated. In the early mornings and the late nights, he chanted the Monadic pillars that Maria had almost entirely forgotten until recently. Simon often joined him, kneeling on the floor at his side and muttering the pillars. El would join the two men too and almost sing them under her breath. When they had prayed together once inside Francis’s exitless room, the ELPIS leaders had watched them silently—almost judgmentally—from a distance. Once Maria thought she saw Conta mouth the words to the prayers too.
Maria wondered about the practice. Even when she was younger, she didn’t understand why they made her pray and recite the pillars. Nothing exciting happened during the prayer nor did anything happen after because of it. It was just the same thing over and over again in a cycle.
Curiosities and lack of understanding aside, Andres himself reminded Maria just a bit of her Jericho. Due to the fact Jericho was soon taken away on an election campaign by Leona, the two men only met a handful of times again after Maria had lost her ship and her crew to Proteus. The few times Andres and Jericho did meet, they got along wonderfully well—which Cadence had taken partial credit for since she’d been the one to push the two together.
In-between each of their expeditions during their rest times in Francis’s rooms, Jericho would come to Andres and would sketch pictures of the missing children for him from written description. Andres had tried to conjure some photos himself but they had all come out distorted. Occasionally, during periods in-between searches, they would play this odd game of charades where the other man would try to guess what the other was drawing or conjuring.
Maria enjoyed watching Jericho enjoy himself. He was hers, after all, and deserved just as much. But—Jericho was still very sad about Benì. Maria remembered his sadness well because it had never really left. It clutched her chest tight at the oddest of times and reminded her vaguely of the heavy chain that would weigh down Olive’s chest.
Maria tried to make Jericho understand: there was no need to feel sad or bad because she would return things to the way they were. With Conta too—even if Conta was no longer really Conta.
If Maria herself couldn’t do these things, then it wouldn’t make sense for the world to exist. The world was in the palm of her hand, after all. Whenever she thought like this, however, Atienna would always think gently in response— ‘It’s not always a ‘quick and simple easy fix though, Maria. Quick and easy fixes are almost never permanent.’ Maria always found Atienna’s way of thinking strange. Even after Atienna had decided to work together with the saint candidates, Atienna still looked away from it all even as she was doing as they asked. Maria hadn’t complained much about the deal since she imagined it could be an interesting and unique experience and because she could simply undo everything that had been done later on. Yes, it was no problem at all. At least that was until she saw how deeply the hunt affected someone who was hers.
Maria remembered that day a week ago well. She had been a bit alarmed by the cold, dull, shivering pain that had sprouted out from nowhere in the middle of her visit to Morandi. What had alarmed her the most was everything that had unraveled afterwards. Maria couldn’t quite wrap her head around why Werner would hide taking chlorowheat or do chlorowheat to begin with. It was the definition of un-Werner-like as were the lies that spilled from his mouth afterwards. At that moment when he’d been cornered, he hadn’t seemed like her Werner at all. Maria supposed she wasn’t too unfamiliar with someone changing into another person before her eyes. The same had happened to Conta. So, rather than feeling surprised at the sight, Maria had only felt a heaviness in her chest and a sense of determination. Of course— if Werner hadn’t belonged to her and if he had been someone other than Werner, Maria would not have forgiven his words to Cadence or Olive. But since he was hers, she’d comforted him instead. She wanted him and Cadence to both be happy, after all. The pain those two had felt in that moment and still felt even now was unlike anything Maria had ever felt before. A long and deep sort of pain that existed long before she had deemed those two as hers. No matter what Maria had done the week following, she couldn’t seem to make that pain disappear.
Not a quick and easy fix. Perhaps even impossible.
But it being an impossible fix wasn’t possible, Maria had thought then and even now—because she could do anything. Impossible was something to be broken by the strong. So… why could she not yet been able to conquer this pain that they felt?
“Age, illness, sickness, pain, despair, heartache, tragedy, the forces of nature,” Conta had said back then. “These are things beyond anyone’s control. These are things that you can’t overcome no matter how hard you try. Hope—while inspirational—is still logical. It doesn’t apply in these areas.”
The more Maria thought about it the more she came to think about the pasts of the other five. Then her thoughts then went back to the children Proteus had taken and to her crew members. What had they gone through before meeting with her? What had they gone through while they’d traveled with her? What had she not been able to conquer for them?
Whatever it was, the fact remained that now her children and crew were gone. Her crew had left her again. No, they had been taken from her. Their freedom taken by—Proteus. He was the one. He took everything. But he was not her final destination. But while that was true, perhaps he was her starting point? It wasn’t good to think one had neither.
Albatross abruptly rose from his seat and sank down beside Maria. He rested his head on the bed and stared at Morandi for a while. After a pause, he tried, “Maria, you’re going to let me come with you, right? Lita and the others…” He clenched his fist before grimacing. “I’m a Specialist. I can do some—”
Maria turned to him sharply.
Albatross stiffened, searching her face. “M-Maria?”
Maria loosened her lips into a smile before reaching out and placing a hand on his head. “It would be better for you to stay here or in Francis’s room, no, my dear Albatross? Morandi needs company, yes?”
Albatross looked back at Morandi before his eyes narrowed. “Foxmans… I know they’re not the Campanas, and I know that Mr. Campana—Ambrose—isn’t actually himself anymore, and I know they’re helping us, but all of them are cut from the same cloth. They came from the same city.” He looked back at her with a grimace. “The only difference is that they have different products.”
Albatross bristled before he took in a deep breath and clenched his fist. “That Proteus. That Alpha—that’s a stupid name, by the way.He’s just like the Campanas. I know it. We’re just things to them, but they make us all think that they’re doing us a favor by taking us in. They—he—needs to be—”
Brought to justice.
“Albatross, do you know what you are?” Maria moved her hand to the adolescent’s chin, silencing him. “You are a treasure—”
Albatross’s brows furrowed—not the reaction she’d been expecting. “I-I’m not a thing, Maria. I’m not a treasure either. I’m Albatross.” He pulled away from her. “You promised us an adventure. You promised us fun. You promised us freedom. You said we could choose it… like you let us choose our names.”
“I didn’t ‘let’ you, yes?” Maria interjected. “You chose for yourself.”
“Okay, so I want to choose this—to come with you.”
Maria studied him for a moment. She remembered that when she’d first brought him on board he wouldn’t even look her in the eyes and always kept his head bowed around others. The one time he’d lifted his head was when she’d taken them all to the coasts of Pisces where the flocks of seabirds had migrated near the middle of winter. His eyes had sparkled then upon watching them take flight and had sparkled even further when Lita had entered his periphery.
An emotion Maria now knew as worry blossomed in her chest. At the same time, however, another feeling blossomed alongside it. He was free, was he not? And she was strong enough to protect his freedom.
“Okay, my dear! You can come—”
“You are his captain. You’re older and wiser,” Conta interjected. “They’re younger. You’re bringing him into a dangerous situation.” Her eyes narrowed. “Do you not have any sense of responsibility?”
Maria turned to her slowly. “You are still so kind, no, Conta? Even though you have things you want to do as Beta, you are staying here with me and Morandi.”
Conta’s eyes narrowed. “Morandi has a series of pre-existing conditions that are causing further complications in his health,” she said after a beat. She nodded at El who stiffened under her gaze. “I feel sympathy towards him. He reminds me of my father. My father worked himself to death shaping Ophiuchus, while he works himself to death under you.”
El stiffened under Conta’s gaze before clearing her throat. “I don’t mean to question you or anything, Captain, but”—she gestured to Morandi—“I’m surprised that all this wasn’t caught earlier. I’m sure you’re on the move all the time, but it’s important for everyone on the ship to get a physical at least once a year.” She fidgeted. “This… could’ve been prevented…”
Maria turned away from El and lowered her head back on the bed. Prevented. Could Conta becoming Beta have been prevented? Could Jericho losing Benì have been prevented? Werner taking chlorowheat?
“We did have a ship doctor once,” Maria said after a beat with a smile. “The Golden Beast swept him away after he summoned its curse, yes?”
“The golden beast…?” El paled. “That tall tale…” She laughed nervously. “That isn’t real…”
“He left along with Tulio and some of the others,” Conta explained. “Because they didn’t feel comfortable with her as their leader. Whether that was her strength or their weakness or vice versa is something up to debate.”
Three days prior as Maria had physically made her way to Werner on that day, she abruptly recalled the name of the town where her old orphanage resided. She wasn’t quite too sure why she recalled it at that moment. Maybe the feelings she felt standing between Werner and Cadence had reminded her that day Proteus swept her out of the orphanage. That feeling of not having control—that powerlessness. Maybe because of that, the location rang clear: the Gloria House located in the town of Alfablanca and headed by Monadic Priest Primera-Freeza.
The name that chimed like a bell inside of her head eventually resonated out to the others. Together they had synchronized in together and gathered in one of Francis’s rooms a day later. They had stood around a central wooden table there before the map they’d been using to track Proteus’s movements. Albatross, Simon, Andres, Epsilon, and El had stood on Maria’s side of the table, while Cadence had stood physically on the other end with Fortuna and Carl flanking her left and right. Olive, Atienna, and Jericho had synchronized in using both Cadence and Maria herself as an anchor.
With Jericho’s, Atienna’s, and El’s help, Maria had been able to locate the town on the map. Much to Maria’s wonder, El knew the geography of Leo as well as Cadence knew the layout of the Twin Cities.
Maria’s ‘home’town itself was located on the seaside only two towns over from Comientzo. If Maria put down her index finger in the space in-between the two towns on the map, she would be able to connect them together with her nail. That was how close the two were.
Cadence had scratched the back of her head and arched a brow as she looked the marked spot over. “Now, how did we miss that?”
Carl and Fortuna exchanged silent looks.
“You didn’t look hard enough,” Conta said. “That’s why you missed it.”
Olive arched a brow at Conta. “You were there too half the time….”
Maria had wondered if Conta could even recall what the orphanage looked like. She hadn’t offered any ideas as to where their orphanage could be after Proteus had dropped Primera-Freeza’s name, but Maria had seen a flicker of recognition in her eyes after she’d learned the name of the town.
“Well, ya know what they say. It’s always in the last place ya look.”
“Obviously,” Olive muttered.
“I don’t believe there’ve been any Monadic orphanages active here in this northern region off of Comientzo for at least a decade,” Simon had finally murmured after having remained quiet the entire time.
El nodded. “Most temples and orphanages here left after there was an economic fallout during…. well… Anyways, are you sure this is the place, Captain?”
“Yes, this is it,” Maria had replied, hand drifting towards the map. “I can feel it.” As soon as she had pointed to the location on the map herself, Werner had emerged from the gate behind her. Simon and El startled at his arrival, while Carl and Fortuna exchanged looks.
Werner’s hair—although combed back in what appeared to be haste—was slightly frayed. His face was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes, but he looked like her Werner. He had stood there for a moment beneath all of their gazes, before he finally said, “Please allow me to assist at least this much.”
Cadence frowned slightly. “Werner, ya should be restin’…”
Maria looked between them before flashing a smiling and beckoning him forward. “I missed seeing seeing you, yes?”
Offering her a stiff and tired smile, Werner had approached the table and observed the map. “Under normal circumstances, given that we have an idea of the date and time Alpha may appear, I would suggest for us to work concurrently with Leona on this while simultaneously planning a rescue and protect operation for the children that might be with him.”
Jericho looked up at him with a frown.
Conta’s gaze visibly darkened. “What? Working with the saint candidates?”
“We can’t do that,” Olive drew. “Not anymore.”
Werner held his gaze for a moment then nodded. “Circumstances have changed. This would be our first active move collectively without supervision. Although it’s not a direct move against them yet, we should still be cautious…” He swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment as he leaned forward against the table.
A wave of shivers rolled across Maria’s back as her temple began to squeeze and her stomach squeezed into knots. Jericho remained upright as well, although his brows did furrow. Olive, on the other hand, sank to a crouch and grimaced, while Atienna slowly lowered . Cadence let out a loud groan and fell on her rear before falling flat out on her back.
“What the fuckin’ hell, Cadence?” Carl snapped, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her up to a stand. “What’s a matter with you?
Werner paled, and the woozy feeling retreated. Werner was reeling it back in. “I apologize—”
Olive waved his hand and pulled himself up to a stand. “It’s fine, Werner, really. ”
Cadence brushed herself off and nodded. “Nothin’ ta worry about.”
Carl studied Cadence, frowned, and sent Fortuna a look.
“What?” Fortuna returned tightly.
“What were you saying, Werner?” Atienna pressed, rising from her seat in her surroundings and approaching the table again.
Werner remained silent for a moment before he finally tapped the dark mark on the map. “The closest gate is at the very edge of the city… Given the randomness of Francis’s gates without communication with Francis himself, Alpha and his procession—”
“‘Procession’, Captain?” Cadence arched a brow.
“—Alpha and his group,” Werner amended, “will be using a different means of transportation.”
Olive scanned the map before his eyes widened. “The sea…”
Werner nodded again, moving his finger to the waterline on the map just one finger away from Alfablanca. “He’ll be arriving here. Most likely, he will be pulling in directly below the orphanage location.”
“The waters near places like this are rough, yes?” Maria pondered out loud. “It’s quite fun to ride on but…” She glanced at Simon then Albatross. “If you are not strong and experienced, you can lose your ship to the waves.”
“Alpha. He doesn’t care. He’ll come there anyways.”
“I believe that if we take Alpha’s personality into account and his… relationship with you, Maria,” Atienna drew slowly, “we may be able to assume he’ll be coming in on your ship. I believe—although I don’t think he’s as forward and vehement as Scorpio—”
Werner stiffened briefly.
“—he’ll also be bringing Lita and the rest of your crew with him.”
Maria’s eyes narrowed, but she grinned a moment after. “Then I can retrieve both my ship and my crew then and there, yes? It is… how do you say it?”
“Two children,” Jericho replied, “one boulder.”
“Wha—it’s ‘two birds, one stone,’” Olive corrected, doing a double-take. “Jericho, where… did you even hear that version from? It sounds like the headline for a morbid breaking news article…”
Jericho had seemed to think on it.
“Alpha will also most likely have Rho with him, so that warrants caution,” Werner had continued. “Although Nu was absent in your previous encounters with Rho, we shouldn’t rule him out completely. Rho is our biggest concern, since her conducting is versatile.” He nodded at Maria. “Maria, my suggestion is that you place down Francis’s gates closer to your orphanage in case you require back up.”
Maria threw her head back and laughed. “Don’t worry, my dear Werner. I will need no such thing. You just relax, yes? Like Nico and Alice said.”
“We’re lucky that Francis’s is still working with us…” Olive added, holding Cadence’s gaze then Werner’s. “After everything that happened…”
Werner and Cadence exchanged looks briefly before Cadence ruffled the back of her head and sighed. “Yeah, we’re lucky to have Francis.”
Carl looked up sharply at Cadence before rubbing his chin and refocusing on the map.
“Where is Theta?” Epsilon had wondered out loud from where he’d started to walk back and forth behind Maria. “I haven’t seen him or Tau around in a few days…”
“He’s busy. Besides—don’t act too friendly with him, you hear?” Carl had replied thickly with a glare before slapping his hand down on the map. “Anyways—so what? We need to mobilize or somethin’ now? Then we ring up some Romanos, some of our own, and some Campana guys at this place. Bag this guy for good finally.”
Olive and Atienna exchanged looks.
“The Campanas being there? Seriously…?” Olive’s frown had deepened. “I get that working with them was what we ‘had to do’, but having them be a part of the rescue thing…” He shook his head. “Some of these people have probably…” He opened his mouth, closed it, lifted his head, and glanced at Fortuna and Carl. “They’ve probably hurt the kids themselves. That’s not…”
“That may not be the best route…” Atienna drew slowly. “Given the Campana’s history with some of the children, it’s likely that distrust will form. Misunderstandings….”
What the children had experienced before Maria had brought them on board, in other words.
Cadence had relayed this idea to Fortuna and Carl.
Carl glared at Epsilon before shrugging. “No big deal. We cut the Campanas out. That ELPIS bastard”—he paused, glancing at Conta—“er, the bad one only has one of the other ELPIS bastards with him, right? The rest are kids. They can’t put up that much of a fight.”
“When you are moved by passion or belief,” Jericho said, “your limits are removed. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. When it’s a false hope—a false promise—it’s bad.”
Cadence relayed this again. Andres nodded. Carl waved a dismissive hand.
“Okay, well, we still have more manpower,” he grumbled. “Taller manpower. Like I said.”
Fortuna’s lips pulled tight. “There might be an issue with that… My father’s pulled back the number of men that he’s putting on this. He called back Cavallo too—which is why we haven’t been graced by his presence lately.”
“What?” Carl snapped. “Why? Why aren’t you there?”
“It might be because of Francis,” Fortuna replied thickly. “Isn’t that why you haven’t seen Allen around recently?”
Carl grimaced. “Well. Whatever. We’ll just use our guys then. Even though we barely have any now—”
“Your guys?” Maria cocked her head. “I said I don’t need back up, yes—”
The wave of nausea returned in an intense wave causing Cadence to double over on the table and for Olive to run to a bucket located somewhere in his surroundings. Werner again seemed to try to pull the pain back into himself with difficulty.
“Werner,” Olive drew slowly, “I think… maybe you should rest now. You really helped out a lot, but I think it’s more important for you to rest right now…”
“I’m sorry…” Werner’s lips pressed thin. He glanced to the side and held Atienna’s gaze. When she nodded, he looked back at Maria. “There’s a possibility that my symptoms may negatively impact you during your confrontation with Alpha. I dislike the idea of doing this, but I think it would be best if I was medicated to weaken our connection temporarily.”
Cadence whipped to him wildly and held her hands up placatingly. “Woah, woah, hey, Captain!” She went to his side immediately and placed a hand on his back. “Let’s not get drastic. You’re supposed ta be gettin’ off of somethin’ not gettin’ back on somethin’ else.”
“It will just be temporary,” Werner assured her. “And it will administered under Nico’s supervision.”
Atienna nodded after a beat as did Jericho after he looked between her and Werner. Maria gave her nod next followed by Olive who did it more hesitantly. Eventually, Cadence rubbed the back of her neck and conceded.
“Okay, okay,” she said, guiding him back to the gate. “Then I guess we’ll do that. But for now, let’s get ya back there.”
Cadence ushered Werner back through the gate and returned a couple minutes later alone. She looked a bit weary when she returned and tired too.
There it was again, Maria thought. That pain. A pain that was now becoming Maria’s own pain. How to fix it… How to conquer it…?
“So…” Cadence walked back up to the table casually. “Back-up.”
“Again with this back-up. The invitation from Proteus was to me, no?” Maria tilted her head in thought. “You can come for the fun and adventure like my crew, but I will face Proteus alone.”
Jericho frowned. “No. I’ll come too. Somehow, I’ll get away from Leona and be there. I am nearby. I also need to meet Alpha. After we rescue the children, we need to question it. Maria, it’s the one.”
Maria held Jericho’s gaze.
“Come on, sunshine, ya know the routine,” Cadence interjected, rounding the table and approaching Maria with spread arms. “Are ya sure you’re okay facin’ Eyepatch? Ya sure it ain’t gonna be like one of Atienna’s books? Ya know when the main character faces their old pal and then they get all emotional and can’t fight right and there’s drama or whatever?”
“You’ve gotten very good at reading to be reading those kinds of things, no?” Maria laughed.
Cadence offered a smile and a slight bow. “We’re just worried, sunshine. Ya want to keep us happy since we’re yours, right? Like the usual spiel?”
“Maria, I understand how you feel, okay…?” Olive added. “With how you grew up and everything…” He looked down at his hands. “I think putting down the gate beforehand is a good idea. It’s not like it takes up a lot of time. That and… also maybe…”
She watched him walk to his desk, reach into his drawer, and pull out a metallic sphere for them all to see. Maria recalled seeing Olive fiddling with it several times before along with another type of conductor he called a ‘prosthetic’.
“It’s something that I’ve been working on for a while now,” he explained. “I came up with the idea after learning about Alice’s conducting.”
“Why the hell are you all staring at empty space for?” Carl grumbled. “Fill me in some.”
Olive glanced at him un-impressed before explaining, “After I saw some of Alice’s conducting through Jericho’s thoughts a while back, I had an idea. I wanted to create something that could hold people’s vitae in place like Alice’s vitae—”
“Alice’s vitae?” Jericho leaned forward with interest.
“I would need her vitae first, obviously,” Olive grumbled. “So I was thinking maybe I could help you build it on your end of things, Jericho. Then you could maybe sneak back into Ophiuchus and get some of Alice’s vitae…” He scowled. “It made sense in my head.”
Jericho nodded. “Yes, I can try doing that. This is in preparation for the one… yes?”
Olive nodded then looked back at Maria. “Well… I know it might seem boring to you, but… come on, Maria.”
Maria thought on it for a moment before she nodded. “Okay, my dears, if it makes you feel comfortable, then we’ll put the gate down around the place I am to meet Proteus, yes?” She smiled for them. “Your happiness is a treasure to me.”
The day came two mornings after.
Maria arrived at the outskirts Alfablanca through Francis’s gate alongside Conta, Andres, Albatross, El, Epsilon, and Simon in the bright and early morning. From there, she made her way with them through the sleepy town. The red stone buildings that rose up along the small strip of asphalt road were unfamiliar to her as were the handful of white temples squeezed between them. The men and women dotting the sidewalks in loose, open shirts and billowing skirts were only a touch familiar. Familiarity came as they walked deeper into town and as the slant of the road became steeper and steeper. Soon the buildings fell away behind them and long blades of grass took their place.
Up and up, Maria led her crew as the asphalt melted into a dirt path which marked the beginning of the cliff. Now, nostalgia began to fully blossom in her mind. She reached out and plucked several strands of grass from the ground before proceeding to tie each strand in a large circlet. She then twined another blade of grass around the base she did. She did this to the other blades of grass until she was carrying a handful of mini-crowns in her hands.
You are a ruler, no, my dear Olive? Maria thought as she felt him peering in. Everyone—aside from Werner who was unconscious—was peering in. This would suit you, yes?
Olive, who was stiff and nervous in the distance, seemed to snort. I’m not a ‘ruler.’
But you are a prince, yes? Soon to be a king?
I’m… not there yet.
But you would like to be, yes? You have changed your mind little-by-little?
Things aren’t going to fix themselves. It’s annoying but… Olive’s presence become stronger, although she still couldn’t see his surroundings clearly. Whatever. Nevermind. Just be careful, Maria… Please.
Maria at first considered laughing off his worry but instead recalled his worry when they had been confronting Werner on that day. After some thought, she grinned at no one in particular and nodded. I’m always careful, my dear.
Conta continued scanning the path with a dull expression. Maria tried searching her face but couldn’t find what she was looking for there. Regardless, she placed the small grass circlet on her head. Conta turned to her sharply at this but merely shook her head and looked away.
Maria then looked back at the rest of her remaining crew. Again, her mind went to their hidden pasts—their histories she didn’t know and didn’t bother to question. She wondered what sort of pain was still existing there that she hadn’t been yet able to identify and prevent.
“El, why are you here?”
El startled, glancing at Andres who paced beside her before pointing at her face. “You’re asking me?”
“This must be very strange to you, no?” Maria nodded, searching what little there was to see of the woman’s face. “Strange but exciting, yes?”
“It is… a bit overwhelming,” El admitted. “I… don’t even fully understand what’s going on, to be completely honest with you.” She lifted her chin. “But even though I haven’t been here that long, I chose to be a part of your crew and Morandi accepted me without questioning a single thing, so…” She nodded. “I’m sticking to it.”
“I like your spirit, my dear El,” Maria chimed before humming. “And what is it that made you choose my ship out of all the ships you could have boarded? What do you plan to do after you do this training and learn on board my ship? Why did you leave your place?”
El adjusted her veil. “Well, that’s…complicated.”
Maria stared at her for a moment before laughing. “Oh? You don’t have a reason, yes? A bit like my Jericho. You are searching for one. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, yes?”
“The free room and food was a perk for joining outside of the” El admitted after a beat. “I’m not too used to being on my own… so—”
“Is there anything I can do for you, my dear El?”
While El and Andres looked only mildly surprised, everyone else turned to her sharply.
“I can’t think of anything really…” El murmured.
Maria merely smiled in response before placing a circlet onto El’s head. She then pointed at Andres. “Andres? Why are you here with me?”
Andres studied her for a moment before conjuring a familiar notepad and scribbling down a quick note. I’m here to retrieve the children. That’s all. You’re also connected with someone who has friendly relationships with someone who is connected to me. I want to keep this up for him.
“Ah, Claire, yes—”
Andres tensed and looked around.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Andres?”
He placed a finger to his lips. He is important to me. It will be bad for us if our connection was discovered. I want to keep him safe.
Maria mimicked the gesture and placed a circlet on his head before swiveling around to face Albatross. “Albatross?”
Albatross glanced up at her. “You know why I’m here, Maria. Because I want to be. And I’m here here for Lita and the others. You’ve already done a lot for me, Maria. For all of us. I don’t know what else I’d ask for…” He looked away. “I’m not sure if you’re even thinking about this, but… I don’t blame any of this on you. You can’t be everywhere at once and you can’t always do everything—I understand that…” He scowled. “It’s all because Veles stormed off and there was no one there to look after them…” He stared up ahead. “Lita’s strong. So are Emmanuel and Raul. Raul’s probably snuck poison in their food or something. Yeah, they’re alright. ”
Yes, they were strong. Maria knew this. But she couldn’t help but feel slightly surprised and curious at the fact that Albatross hadn’t pointed a finger in her direction like her old crew members had done when they’d sided with Leona—Oros.
“She couldn’t be everywhere at once and she couldn’t do everything,” he said.
“Accepting that you can’t do everything is the first step to true strength,” Conta had said.
Veles, Maria thought. Yes, he’d left her too, looking at with one last expression of hurt before he’d departed. Again, there it was. She hadn’t been able to understand his feelings or hold onto him—but she would be able to retrieve him back. Didn’t that count in some way?
Maria placed a circlet on Albatross’s head. She could see Conta’s gaze narrow from the corner of her eye. Pondering it, she craned her neck to find Epsilon walking just a step behind her. She flashed him a smile. “And you, Epsilon?”
Epsilon beamed as if he’d been waiting for the question. “I’m with you because I wouldn’t think of being anywhere else, Leo. I wouldn’t think of ever asking you for anything either. I’m happy just to be able to be in your presence.” He gestured to the swaying grass. “This countryside is as beautiful as all the others. Your country is really something, Leo I wish we had more time to see it all… I wish the others—Alpha, Gamma, the candidates—could see how beautiful it is too.”
Maria smiled at this and knighted him with circlet before moving onto—“Simon?”
“Again, Captain?” Simon chuckled. “We discussed this not too long ago, didn’t we? You swept me off my feet quite literally.”
“And why do you stay?”
“I just haven’t found a reason yet to leave—”
Conta finally interjected, “Simon and Albatross shouldn’t even be here. Epsilon’s presence is also questionable. They’re not combatants.”
Maria peered at Conta and felt somewhat somber. “The part of you that still remains Conta makes you caring… yes? Or were you always a worried person as Beta?”
Conta studied Maria with a frown but didn’t answer.
The conversation lapsed.
As Maria continued to wind up the cliff in the silence, the sound of whispering ocean waves crashing against the rocks reached her ears. Abruptly, she recalled that when she was younger, she was certain that sound belonged to ocean spirits lurking just beneath the surface of all that blue. Even now, she still believed that those ocean spirits were responsible for at least part of that sound. She’d sworn to Conta that she’d capture one of those spirits for her one day—
“I can’t believe it’s still here.”
Maria looked back at Conta and found her staring up ahead. Maria followed her gaze and registered that they’d finally reached the top of the cliff.
Two buildings stood across from each other there. One was a low, long building with curved-tile roofing that looked patchy in parts. The windows lining its body were circular but broken in. The orphanage.
The other building stood tall and proud with round pillar teeth holding up its triangular head. The temple. Although it stood sturdy and tall, a sound reverberated out from its body. Low, brass, hollow, musical.
There it was. That sound that rang out in her dreams. That sound that had only become louder and louder since she’d overridden Werner in the capital of Capricorn. A calling.
Maria stepped towards the temple instinctively—
—before pulling back and heading into the orphanage. She pushed open its creaking wooden doors and peered inside. It was dark, dusty, desolate, but familiar. A chalkboard ran along the wall in the back with an audience of fallen wooden chairs in its wake. Down the hall on the left, Maria could spy toppled bunker-beds and cabinets that spilled out moth-eaten clothing.
Something stirred in Maria’s chest as ghostly faint laughter echoed in her ears. A distant memory. One that she’d never be able to fully recall. The people here had shown her love, had they not? They’d taught her things. Given her things. She didn’t really think of the concept often but perhaps she’d considered this her home.
A ghostly hand pressed against arm.
Jericho—she couldn’t see him fully yet but he was there.
Conta brushed past her before she could acknowledge him. After sweeping the dark place with her gaze, Conta paced over to the chalkboard and pulled out Francis’s proto-conductor. She threw a splash of black liquid in an arc on its surface and took a step back as she watched the liquid drip down onto the floor. Andres stepped into place beside Maria and flashed her his notebook.
Mine was the same.
Albatross stepped inside too, led by Simon. While Albatross looked around with a confused expression, Simon took in the decrepitness with a tender hand on his chest. The latter let out a quiet sigh and turned to hold Maria’s gaze. He looked almost apologetic.
“Why do you look so sad for, my dear Simon?” she whispered, reaching out and holding his cheek in her hand. “Our journey is not over yet, yes?”
“You grew up here, Maria?” Albatross whispered over Simon’s silence. He opened his mouth, then closed it. “You were like us…?”
Instead of answering, Maria led them back out of the building and headed out onto the dirt path.
Wait a minute. Cadence. Sunshine, at least wait for me to get Carl on this so he can get his guys—
I don’t need back up, Maria reassured her. I laid the gates like you said, yes? It’s fine now, no?
Continuing forward and signaling her crew to keep their distance with a flick of her hand and a smile, she ascended the small steps leading to the open doors of the temple.
As she neared the entrance, Maria came to recognize the large half-oval-shaped windows that ran along the parallel walls of its interior. The stained glass that used to fill them lay on shattered shards on the ground—faintly catching the gray light seeping down through the clouds. The paint from the bright murals that connected each window to the next appeared to have been chipped away by the passages of time. The wooden pews were completely missing, leaving the entire place with a spacious and empty feeling. Above them hung the bells, swinging to the side ever so slightly and clanging out familiar, faint chimes.
Upon stepping into the temple, Maria registered that a long and thick chain was nailed to the center of the floor and spilled out the back opening of the temple. She couldn’t make out where the chain ended as it disappeared after rounding the outer wall. The towering faceless statue that used to gate the field before the cliff was no longer present, she noticed. In its place stood and facing the tip of the cliff beyond stood a familiar man dressed in a naval officer’s uniform. Absentmindedly, he tapped the chain with his foot.
“Not much has changed, has it?” Proteus asked, turning to face Maria. “Since the last time we met here.”
Jericho synchronized strongly, bringing with him a simmering heat that bubbled in the pit of her stomach.
Maria remembered it at that moment. This was how Proteus had come in the very first time—blazing in through the open window and storming in with a handful of others during the morning service. He’d toppled the statue with a wave of his hand as his crew turned over all the pews. Primera-Freeza had tried to stop him but he’d been slain with a flick of a blade. Maria meanwhile had run to Conta’s side and had held her close as the temple was thrown in disarray. As the raid had neared its end, Maria had stood before Proteus in defiance. He’d smiled when he’d faced her. She remembered something being tucked under his arm at the time. A head. Whether it was the head of the Monadic statue or Primera-Freeza’s head—Maria hadn’t known then and still couldn’t recall even now.
He can’t be forgiven.
Pushing down Jericho’s pulsating rage and the odd feeling bubbling at the pit of her stomach, Maria extended her hand. “You will return the ones that are mine now, yes? The ones you have taken?”
Proteus stared at her hand for a moment before turning back to the open plains extending out behind the temple. “Five hundred years from now after ELPIS, True Conductors, and the saint candidates are long gone, I’m sure that historians and anthropologists will think this place was used for human sacrifices after it decays away with time. They wouldn’t be too far off—” He laughed abruptly. “Wait, actually, it isn’t as gruesome as that. Isn’t that silly how things can lose their direction so easily? I guess there’s some analogy here that can be made, but I’ll let you do the thinking.”
Maria hummed. “I like this place, yes? This is where Conta and I grew up. It’s mine. Now that I’ve found it again, I will keep it safe and not let it decay. It won’t lose it’s true meaning while I’m here.”
“Conta…?” Proteus’s gaze drifted to Conta who came to stand beside Maria. He hummed before smiling. “It’s good to see you again, Beta.”
“Alpha…” Conta drew darkly, taking a step forward and lifting her gloved hand. A scabbed-over scar running down opposite her forearm cracked open and spilled out white liquid spear that hurtled right towards him.
Before it reached its target, a white mist spilled into the room from the outside fields and surrounded Proteus in a protective barrier. As soon as the spear contacted the mist, it disintegrated into nothing.
A woman stepped into the room from the outside and kicked the chain to the side. While her right arm was lifted and the glove on her right hand pulsating, the left sleeve of her Monadic robes was empty. Maria remembered tearing this woman’s arm off after she’d shoved a rebar through her arm just below the shoulder.
He is not with her again, Jericho thought. Nu is not with her.
“You’re always so impatient, Beta,” Rho tutted, flicking out her wrist.
The mist that had intercepted Conta’s vitae threaded around the temple. Maria followed its trajectory closely.
Quickly, Maria shoved back Conta just as the mist almost swallowed her in. Conta stumbled back in surprise as Simon and Andres caught her. They collectively startled in surprise as a barrier of mist that went up to their chins formed between them and Maria herself. Maria wasn’t too alarmed by this development and turned to see the extent of the mist’s coverage. The mist had formed a hollow rectangle in the temple and barricaded her path to the windows and the back of the temple. Proteus and Rho were both on the opposite side of the wall of mist across from her. Maria soon realized she was the only one locked in.
“Leo!” Epsilon cried in alarm.
“That’s not what Ophiuchus taught us, is it?” Rho finished, lowering her hand. “Impatience is an enemy.”
“Rho.” Conta shook her head. “You child.”
“You’re the child in my eyes.” Rho lowered her hand and gazed at Maria. She pointed to her empty sleeve. “You’re a real monster, did you know that, Maria Gloria-Fernandez? There’s no way someone like you could ever be the saint candidate of Leo. You lack Leo’s elegance and Leo’s humbleness when standing before death, you know?”
“H-How dare you say that to Leo!” Epsilon stammered over the mist. “Cornering her like this in an unfair fight—”
“What? Why are you always such a fanboy, Epsilon?” Rho rolled her eyes. “And what makes it unfair? We’re not taking her on. She’s going to go one-on-one, didn’t you know? It’s dramatic and a bit cliché, but that’s how it is.” She shrugged and studied Maria. “You’re really a pitiable thing.”
Maria stepped forward with a smile. “I don’t understand why you are looking at me with pity.” She placed a hand on her belt where her two trusty blades rested as well as the pistol Cadence had given her the last time she’d been in Francis’s room. “If you become any more daring, something may happen to your other arm, yes? You may not feel pain but you do feel annoyed, yes?” She tapped her fingers, glancing back at Albatross who was stiff as a stone. “Besides, I am not standing before death. I never will—”
“Everyone stands before death at one point or another; everyone dies,” Proteus interjected. “Whether that be a physical death, a spiritual death, a death in the history books, or a death in the memory of others.” He chuckled. “That’s how heroes truly die. They become forgotten by the people after them or twisted into villains in the history books. That’s why you can’t really trust what’s written down in history. Better yet—don’t record anything down at all.”
“I have seen Theta take good and gentle care of his records and book, yes?” Maria cocked her head. “I admire it! I find it boring, but I understand why he does it. Sometimes the tales can be exciting, no?” She took another step forward. “They are here, aren’t they? My—”
“You probably said something like ‘Alpha is not my final destination’ recently, right? Before you came here?” Proteus hummed. “Maybe you even told Jericho that.” He glanced over her shoulder. “He is here right now, isn’t he?” He waved. “Hello again, Jericho. My answer for you will still be the same if you’re still asking.”
Maria clenched her fist but still managed to ask with slight surprise, “Oh, that’s quite amazing. How did you know?”
“Like I said, I know everything,” Proteus replied. “And I know you’re right about me not being your final destination. I’m not even an interlude. Do you know what your real final destination is?” He pointed out a finger towards the thin line squeezed between the sea and sky. “War. It’s just on the horizon.”
“No. I have no final destination,” Maria replied lightly.
“Even if you insist it doesn’t make it so.” Proteus stared at her and laughed again. “I don’t mean to be overly dramatic and fatalistic like Scorpio but that’s what it’s shaping up to be: war. It’ll happen like this—and I assure you that this’ll be exactly how it’ll play out: the Leonian government will report that the princess that’s due to marry some duke of Cancer has been assassinated by the Aquarian Yastreby which has recently started peeking in to the country. The accusation will work perfectly well since the Yastreby were found in the estate of a missing Cancerian duchess not too long ago. Of course, the Leonian princess is missing right now too—although the officials are hiding it—so it’s really just a political play to fuel the war machine. It’s not such a bad thing—running away. It’s sad that other people have to ruin the freedom of it.”
“After that, Leo will declare war on Aquarius because of its interference. Cancer will join on Leo’s side claiming Aquarius was also politically interfering in their country. The former to-be-wedded duke will fall in line and play to be a mournful husband.” Proteus laughed. “‘Play’—well, he is quite the player. Anyways—in the end, Capricorn will come to Aquarius’s aid, while Sagittarius and Aries will probably side with Cancer and Leo. As for the other countries… Seeing how Virgo’s been for the past decade, they’ll probably declare neutrality and maybe even offer a safe haven for refugees.” He hummed. “Maybe Virgo may take that idea too literally too.”
Atienna’s synchronization increased and Maria could feel the tension in her shoulders.
“What makes you think that?” Maria asked on Atienna’s behalf.
“I don’t think. I know.” Proteus moved the chain on the ground with his foot again. “Speaking of ‘thinking’—why do you think I asked you to meet me here?”
Maria considered it. “You had no reason. It was on a whim, no? Or not? It must be very difficult to act on a whim when you have ‘lived for so long,’ no? There are many motivations that build up over the years, yes? There has to be something. Maybe you don’t even know it, yes? But I know the reason I’m here.”
“Right, right.” Proteus placed a thoughtful hand on his chin. “You call your crew and the people close to you ‘yours.’ They’re your things—”
“They are not my ‘things,’” Maria interjected, glancing over her shoulder at Albatross again. “They are just my people.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Proteus noted. “You remember what I said last time we met, don’t you? But even now you’re trying to take ownership over them—attach yourselves to them and have them attach to you. You’ll only get hurt and disappointed in the end, and you’ll end up very unhappy and dissatisfied. It’s the human condition.” He chuckled. “That’s what happened to the saint candidates, actually.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, that’s my reason, I think. I really did ask you to come see me here on a whim, but I also wanted to see if you’ve changed your perspective out of curiosity. Maybe to see if you’ve changed it more to match mine? I can tell by looking at your face—you’ve gone through a lot of things since we last met, haven’t you, dear little Maria?”
Maria felt her smile falter slightly, and she tightened her grip on her blade’s hilt.
“Well, I sort of sound like a villain if I say it like that, but that’s how it is.”
“Your perspective is not my reality,” Maria answered calmly, “so there’s your answer.”
“Yes, that’s what they taught you in the orphanage here,” Proteus hummed. “Your reality is their reality. I’m sure you’re coming to realize this.” He gestured to Simon. “Isn’t that right, Simon?”
Simon stiffened. “How did you know my name—”
“I know everything,” Proteus replied before gesturing to Andres. “I know that despite your devotion, Simon, you couldn’t stomach what was happening to the children in the Gloria Houses. Rather—you couldn’t stomach what was happening to the little ones who couldn’t become stars. Having your tongue removed or your vocal cords cut in a vow of devotional silence and having your envy turned to love and devotion through indoctrination…” He winced before smiling. “Yes… that’s quite… something. You don’t need to feel guilty though, Simon. You should just enjoy your freedom from that now.”
Albatross made a face and whipped to Simon with an expression of apprehension.
“Oh, by the way! Do you know when Leo began its unique process of selecting saint candidates?” Proteus continued. “It wasn’t always like this.”
Maria walked forward until she was directly above where the chain was nailed to the ground.
“It happened after the 1500s…” Simon murmured.
Proteus snapped his fingers. “Bingo! Do you know what happened in the late 16th century and early 17th? Of course you do. You have to know before you start working with orphanages as a Monadic priest.” He paced back and forth. “That was when Monadism was at its peak. It was a tumultuous time, indeed. It also marked the beginning of the Monadic War which ended with the capitulation of the enthroned Queen Stelleona who apparently was quite cruel. They say her brother was crowned right afterwards but lived a short reign.”
What’s with this history lesson? Olive.
Just let the guy ramble. Cadence. He’s like a loose-version of Scorpio. Buyin’ us time on his own. Back up’s comin’, sunshine.
Maria didn’t need back-up.
“Saint candidates are bearers of knowledge—I’m pretty sure this has been said tens-of-thousands of times to you already. They’re intended to support the leaders of Signum.” Proteus chuckled again. “I’m not pessimistic like some of the others. I think there have been some truly great leaders in the past few centuries. I’m sure several of the saint candidates even came to admire some of the past leaders. Admiration is an attachment through. Eventual disappointment tends to be the end result, so the best thing to do is not to expect anything. If not, you’ll just see that the person you admire and worship is just as human and capable of faults and mistakes as you are. That’s quite disappointing. We worship people because they’re better than us, don’t we? Anyways, if you keep up that worship, you’ll probably become a bit bitter towards them and maybe even apathetic to their woes. But that’s not a bad thing. That’s another way of being free.”
Maria could feel Cadence squirm slightly.
“You know… Even if you offer your vision to these magnificent people in dire times”—Alpha pointed to his eyepatch— “some will still be blind.” He laughed. “They say justice is blind, but what happens when you’re only blind in one eye?”
He’s talking too much. Trying to justify himself. Lying. Jericho’s thought cut through. We should ask Andres to conjure a shovel for us. No, Andres can conjure a gun. Rho’s conducting. It does not affect inorganic material. He can shoot just his leg. Or maybe his tongue. We can bring him in. Save the children. Find the ship.
Maria turned to Jericho’s image. Despite his calm expression, eyes were on fire. There it was again—that pain that was too transparent and ephemeral for her to conquer.
Okay, my dear, Jericho. I’ll do just that.
Jericho’s stiffness loosened slightly and he turned to her.
As if reading their minds, Andres conjured a pistol in a flash of amber and aimed it at Proteus.
“Dominic,” Proteus called out as he locked eyes with the man. “Would you like to come out?”
Maria turned her attention forward again. In stepped the familiar Dominic Gloria-Elegido. He fell into step beside Proteus and looked Maria up and down.
“Oh?” Dominic arched a brow. “It’s you. The one who was the best one before I became the best one. You really came like he said you would.”
Andres dropped his raised pistol immediately and scrambled to pull out his notepad. He scribbled quickly on it and flashed it to Dominic. Please come with me. I’ve been sent by the highest Monadic order to save you. You’re not safe here. He extended a hand.
Dominic squinted over Maria’s shoulder past the mist at him. Then he laughed. “You again? The Espada? You’re persistent, aren’t you? I don’t feel like coming with you right now, but you’re free to come with me.”
Andres scribbled down into the notepad again and held it out. You and the others are staying with a dangerous man.
“I’m the next saint candidate of Leo, so you should listen to me, shouldn’t you?” Dominic walked forward, the white mist parting for him as he did so. It closed back behind him, locking him in the square with Maria. “That’s your purpose, isn’t it? Dedicating yourself to Monadism and the star and potential stars? Shouldn’t you be listening to me over what the head priests tell you? I’m the star, aren’t I? You’re going against me by working with this woman, aren’t you?”
Andres tensed and looked to an empty space at his side. He shook his head once, and Maria could see his brows knit.
“I say sit down and pray until I am finished,” Dominic boomed, lifting his head. “Now.”
Sweat formed at Andres’s brows before he slowly—much to Maria’s surprise—sank to his knees and began to chant under his breath.
“W-What are you doing, Andres…?” El whispered, expression pale.
“He’s not Leo,” Epsilon insisted, tugging on his robes. “Maria’s Leo!” When Andres didn’t budge, he hesitantly began to reach for the pistol sitting on the man’s lap.
Maria stopped him with a halting hand. “Do not worry, Epsilon. There won’t be any shooting necessary.”
Dominic abruptly bent down and picked up the chain off the floor. He gave it a tug in the direction opposite of where it was nailed to the ground, but there was resistance on that end. He gave it another tug and another before a cluster of figures—a total of twenty or more people—spilled out onto the grassy plains outside from behind the wall. Each person in the cluster was chained together at the wrists and the ankles to the person beside them in a tangled mess. Most of the figures there appeared to be adolescent or younger. Others were older. A handful of familiar faces were present. Among them, Maria spotted Raul and Emmanuel side-by-side with Miriam and Lita wedged between them. Raul, Emmanuel, and Miriam immediately brightened, while Lita’s head remained bow.
“Lita!” Albatross cried.
Lita lifted her head, her milky eyes searching before she paled and dipped her head again.
Maria’s heart hammered at the sight.
What was wrong with her Lita? What did they do to her Lita? What pain had she not been strong enough to—
“Captain!” Emmanuel called back, struggling in his chains. He jerked his chin at Alpha. “This guy is nuts, Captain. He—”
One of the children linked beside him lifted a white-bladed conductor to his throat. Emmanuel immediately grimaced and shut his mouth.
Indoctrinated children, came Atienna’s thought. But why are they also chained—
Jericho’s rage skyrocketed and burned Maria’s vision red. They’re being tricked. They will regret. Maria—
“This is your burden to freedom,” Proteus said, gesturing to them, “my little Maria.” He laughed again. “Oh, that was a bit dramatic, wasn’t it? You have to admit though that this is a metaphor brought to life.”
“A re-duel,” Dominic spoke over him. “Just you and me. No cheating. Not like last time. I don’t really understand how you were able to use that other conducting-type before, but that’s a crutch, isn’t it? I want to do this with just our abilities. No outside help.”
Olive scoffed. It looks like the Common dictionary’s going to have a new synonym added for the word ‘brat.’
No, Maria thought. She could do it.
Every muscle and fiber in her body—every single vitae particle and the space in-between them—was under her absolute control. But then again…what of the things outside of herself? The thought came so suddenly she almost thought it belonged to one of the other’s at first. She countered it with —What of them? She would simply pound them into submission, conquer them, or make them her own. She could do this because she was strong. This world was hers, and she had absolute control of it. Yes.
Maria, what are you thinking…?
Sunshine, this ain’t what we agreed. I hate ta say this, but that kid is—
But Maria pushed them all back with all of her might. They fought against her mental, but she was stronger. Perhaps it was her ‘sense of self’ that was stronger like Claire had said before. Her conviction, maybe. Jericho was the hardest resistance and clung to the recesses of her mind. Her head pounded as he fought against her, but eventually she was able to hold him back too. She held them all back and at bay—this was strength. It was just her strength alone.
“Done.” Maria flashed Dominic a smile as she wiped the sweat from her brow. “So we will do this the old-fashioned way, yes? I win against you—a minion of the side villain like in those stories—and then I fight the side villain Proteus, yes—”
Dominic threw something at her. She caught the object easily and turned it over in her hands. It was a conducting sword. She activated it just as Dominic activated the one in his hand. Both sprouted a blade of gold. Dominic proceeded to extend his blade outwards. Maria recognized the gesture and extended her blade too until their tips touched and sparked gold. Once the two were perfectly in line with each other, Maria tightened her grip. Out of habit and as a lure, Maria bounced on the balls of her feet and threw the conducting blade up in the air. As expected, Dominic lunged forward—but he did not swing the blade at her. Instead, he swung it downwards and severed the chain from the floor just as the children at the front of the link chain. Maria stared at it confusion for a moment—
“The cliff,” Conta said through gritted teeth from behind.
Maria looked up in alarm to find that the children heading the linked group started moving forward towards the edge of the cliff to a beat. One-two, move forward. One-two, move forward. Emmanuel, Raul, and some of the older crew members struggled against them in a chaotic, off-beat fashion. Their resistance was hampered by Proteus’s children who either put conductors to their throats or. Emmanuel socked an adolescent in the face before the adolescent retaliated by slicing his shoulder.
Maria startled in alarm before running forward—only for Dominic to swing his conductor at her head. Maria reflexively brought hers up, and the two blades sparked against each other. Dominic pressed down harder and harder, forcing Maria backwards. She threw a glance over her shoulder and locked eyes with Conta. Conta grimaced in turn before darting out of the temple and seeming to round the building. Simon and Albatross followed her out.
“It wouldn’t be as challenging if it was just me fighting you,” Dominic said, pressing down harder and harder. “I should try to keep this chain away from you while I defeat you, no? It’ll be more fun that way.”
“Fun at the expense of others?” Maria laughed tightly. “That is a sign of weakness, no?”
Dominic’s eyes narrowed and he lifted his blade to swing at her side. Maria fell forward with momentum of his absence but managed to catch his wrist before he drove his conductor into her side. She took the opportunity to swipe at his leg, but he caught her wrist too and pushed back. They remained there, struggling and locked against each other’s pushes.
“This was little Dominic’s idea,” Proteus informed her from the distance. “I have to say that I personally find it a bit too dramatic, but I do appreciate the concept of it.”
Maria couldn’t focus on Proteus fully as her attention was drawn away to her crew, her children being pulled closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. Conta, Simon, and finally stepped onto the flat grassy cliff. While Simon and Albatross immediately ran to the chained group, Conta turned towards Rho and Proteus. Rho offered a wave in turn, causing Conta to quicken her approach to them.
Before Simon, Albatross, or Conta could reach their destination, however, Proteus’s children finally took the last step. One second, she saw them struggling at the cliff’s tip. And the next, they were gone. Simon and Albatross immediately leapt at the chain and tried to pull it back, but were thrown forward by the weight. Conta whipped around, seemed to hesitate for a moment, before she threw herself forward and caught the chain. She too was dragged forward along the ground.
The chain rattled loudly along the tiles at Maria’s feet as it began to snake away out towards the cliff.
“No!” Sending Dominic back with a hard kick to the chest with all her might, Maria whipped out one the two swords hanging at her belt, aimed it, and threw it at the receding chain. It caught in a link and wedged it-between a tile on the floor. Maria ran at it with her conductor and then melted the link and the blade together into the ground with the heat from her vitae. The chain strained against it and cracks began to appear on the pinned blade. As Maria prepared to pull her second blade from her waist, Dominic came down at her with his conductor. She managed to block it by throwing her blade above her head, but his strike sent her off-balance. In the second she used to rebalance herself, he severed the chain again. It immediately shot away at a rapid speed.
Letting out a roar of frustration, Maria whipped her hand out just as Dominic swung his sword at her abdomen. This time, he was thrown off balance. Maria used the opportunity to swing her blade up. The heat of its tip just barely scored across his chest and nicked his cheek. He stumbled backwards in alarm. When she looked back at the chain, she saw it slipping past the vitae mist—
Maria lunged forward with her left arm extended into the mist and just barely managed to catch the chain in her fingers.
“Leo!” came Epsilon’s cry.
The pain that surged up Maria’s arm was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. It was excruciating—this pain: gnawing at every cell in her arm and scalding down like hot iron. It felt as if her arm was being set ablaze, but still she didn’t release her hold. Not even when she heard her muscle fibers blister and pop. Instead she anchored herself in place. Her arm screamed in protest but she fought against it and began to move backwards with all her might. Step by step. Slowly, she peeled back, back, back—and was finally able to see the damage the mist had done to her hand and arm. It was a red, patchy, swollen mess that looked half-melted into the chain itself. It didn’t even look like a human arm or hand anymore. But this wasn’t very important to Maria.
It was then that she met Proteus’s gaze through the mist.
“How about I tell you the rest of the poem,” Proteus said, “that I promised you? I’m sure Theta was working hard toiling away trying to figure out the little message I left there, but it’s only half complete.”
Maria grimaced as her legs began to give away. With difficulty, ignoring the pain straining her body, she reached for the second blade on her belt and managed to pull it out of its sheath.
Clasping his hands together behind his back, Proteus recited:
“Upon facing the golden beast,
The white beast battled with it traveling to the far exact east.
Twenty-nine times their battle rose in swell,
Until the golden beast finally gave into its wounds and fell.
They say the white beast’s celebration reached below the ground south,
And that it lavishly licked up the golden beast’s name in its mouth.
In its cheerful daze,
It danced upon the brightest pools of the land for days.
But then on day it reached a startling realization,
One that gave it a lifetime’s hesitation
Having taken on so many names, it realized within itself a great imperfection:
It no longer recognized its reflection.”
Maria’s feet began to slip beneath her as she began to be pulled by the weight of all the others closer and closer to the line of mist. No, she refused. Baring her teeth, she stomped her feet down and pulled with all of her might. This was strength. This—she could conquer. Even though she couldn’t conquer their pain, at least she could—
Grimacing, back, back, back, she went until she reached the first blade she’d driven into the ground. With a cry, she swiveled around and just barely managed to drive her second blade through one of the links before the chain completely slipped out from her grasp.
With one last cry, she tore her melted blade from the ground and re-drove it through another link in the chain. This too, she melted it into place with her conductor. As the chain strained, she wound the chain around her left leg and her upper left shoulder and around what remained of her arm. Past the mist towards the cliff, she could see Simon, Albatross, and Conta upright and holding the chain with all their might.
She could still win this. No, they could. They? Ah, she’d made a mistake again, hadn’t she? Not her alone, but ‘they.’ The law of the universe was crumbling around her. Still. She had to hold on regardless.
Defiantly, she lifted her conducting blade with her good hand as she looked back at Dominic. The boy was re-approaching her now with a gaze that glistened with excitement. His blade was held loosely in his hand. Maria recognized that pause and expression. He had achieved victory in his mind already.
“I really am better than you,” he said, pointing the blade at her. “But since I am strong, I can still offer you mercy. Only the strong can offer that, right?”
Maria’s eyes rang as her vision began to swim. The chain was beginning to dig into her flesh.
Dominic’s conducting blade flew out from his grip. He doubled over and winced as he held his hand before sending a glare towards the entrance. Maria followed his gaze and found a handful of men wearing suits crowded there. The Foxman’s men. While all of them were holding guns of various make, only one of them had their weapon pointed at Dominic. It was Maximallian.
Andres stiffened and rose to his feet as he faced Maximallian. He moved seemingly to disarm the man. But before he could reach for Maximillian’s hand, he, Maximilian, and the other suited men were brushed to the side by two newcoming figures. Maximilian looked prepared to protest but froze stiffly with eyes as wide as saucers as he studied the newcomers. A man and a woman.
Although her vision was beginning to dim and she could barely make out their outlines, Maria could tell that the figures were familiar. A man and a woman. The woman had a head of curls that was being tamed into a bun. Maria was certain she had seen this woman in a dream before—yes.
Maria blinked as she registered and recognized the woman’s golden hair.
No, it was Leona…? Maria wanted to think Leona’s appearance was exciting, but she couldn’t bring herself to. What was she doing here?
“Maria!” the man shouted above the mist.
And suddenly Maria could feel him fully: his alarm, his horror, his anguish—completely drowning out the rage simmering in his chest. She could see herself in his eyes—her mangled hand, her shirt soaked with blood, her blazing eyes. Although he could not feel pain, she knew he could feel hers.
Leona scanned the inner temples beside him and narrowed her eyes at Proteus then Maria herself. Then, she cast a glance towards Andres. Her eyes widened a second after as she registered—“Epsilon?”
a/n: writing this chapter for various reasons was hell. i am dead inside