Jericho is traveling to Leo with Leona in order to support her campaign. He has lost another friend to saint candidacy, and the loss is on his mind as Leona and Gabrielle begin exchanging war stories.
Some days later, Maria has finally confronted Alpha in Alfablanca. She struggles to save her crew who are hanging by a chain from falling to their deaths while facing the potential Saint Candidate of Leo Dominic. Jericho arrives on the scene with Leona as Maria’s struggles reach their peak.
The events that span the former and latter events are…
Jericho realized that Leona’s ‘war’ story did not ‘match up’ with what he had gleaned from Oros. At the same time Leona and Gabrielle started exchanging their wartime experiences, Maria had received Oros’s memories from Epsilon. From Jericho’s understanding, Epsilon’s reasoning for offering those memories was this: to ‘cheer’ Maria up. Jericho was aware he himself wasn’t the ‘best’ when it came to social norms, but he was certain that memories of war were not ‘comforting’ or ‘cheerful’ gifts to receive.
The memories did not come to Jericho immediately, but instead were passed down second-hand gradually piece-by-piece as Maria shifted through them afterwards. By the time Jericho digested the information completely, both Leona and Gabrielle had ended their conversation. The two now sat in silence. Leona’s eyes were closed, while Gabrielle stared her down from beside him.
While Oros’s vision displayed a long and drawn out war, Leona’s tale highlighted only her accomplishments on the battlefield and the failures of others. There was no mention of Leonhart working with ELPIS nor was there any mention of her slaughtering the ELPIS leaders in Pandora. Addition: Leona spoke as if Leonhart was herself the entire time. Sense of self was something Claire had applied only to True Conductors, but intuition: it applied to saint candidates also. And ELPIS leaders. Jericho was not good at reading faces but Gabrielle seemed to be unnerved by Leona’s way of speaking. Jericho himself didn’t like it either. It thinned the line between Scorpio and Talib and Cancer and Benì.
Jericho also had a difficult time grappling with the glimpses of ELPIS that he’d seen: ELPIS before they became ‘ELPIS.’ The mundanity in their lives before the war. Again the question arose: why? Francis Jericho could accept. People whom Cadence, Francis, Atienna, and Werner deemed as necessary allies he could accept. Tau was on the borderline. Jericho did not like him. He preached justice but his actions said otherwise. What they had done and made others do—the incongruency of it compared to what they had been before. What was the switch? Did it matter? The reason. Maybe he didn’t truly want to know.
Jericho wanted to speak with Gabrielle about it. Amendment: he wanted to speak to Gabrielle about everything. He had not spoken with her in some time. He had not spoken with anyone from Gabrielle’s inner circle for some time. The exception was Ferris, but their positions as vice chairs had made their meetings ‘far and few in-between.’ Scorpio’s eyes made it even more difficult.
Cadence’s only comment on the Leonhart situation was, Glad I was too young ta see the brunt of the war. Took my parents to their wits’ end, I think. Bah—but nobody wants ta hear about that. When she had relayed the information to Francis, all he said was, “Yes, that some portions in our records regarding Leo’s assistance of us did survive damage, but again it’s no longer pertinent. That time has passed. The hands of time turns over alliances just as it changes people.”
Werner and Atienna both advised Jericho to keep silent about the revelation. Jericho still recalled that night Atienna was embraced by Scorpio. He had not known what to say to her then. She had consistently avoided the topic whenever it was brought up. That was not peculiar of her, however. On the other hand, Werner seemed strange lately. Jericho’s intuition told him something was wrong, but Werner had asked Jericho to trust him and so he did.
* * *
The train arrived at the main station Leonian capital of Oroslita several hours later. As soon as Jericho stepped off with Leona and Gabrielle, he was immediately greeted by a station platform flooded with men and women holding notepads and flashing cameras. The camera flashes seemed endless.
In attempt to shield his eyes from the assaulting light, he raised his hand over his eyes. He lowered it only when a reporter stuck a camera right in his face and took a snapshot. The bright light left stars in Jericho’s vision, and when he could finally see again, he was staring into the face of a man with a heavy mustache. A paper badge was pinned to the man’s chest. It read PRESS.
The reporter lowered his camera and spoke quickly—“There’re rumors that you’re a former associate of the terrorist group ELPIS. Is that true? If so, did that affect your entry into the ELPIS Department? What’s your surname? Don’t you think that your alleged past is a detriment to Leona’s campaign and what the ELPIS Department stands for?”
Jericho lowered his hand and stared at the reporter. His ears rang. How did he know—
No need ta get worked up, detective. Cadence synchronized in very lightly, so he could barely make out her surroundings. It makes sense. You’re in the public eye now. Reporters are somethin’ else. They dig up literally everythin’ ya got buried. I remember one time they got dirt on the old man and Allen all in one go. Had ta be paid off and all that. That or tossed, if ya know what I mean. That’s only if ya’ve got the money though. Anyway, long story short. Just play dumb and casual. Maybe intimidate ‘em a little.
Thinking deeply about Cadence’s proposal, Jericho continued to stare at the reporter. For some reason, the man tensed and backed away slightly. Gabrielle fell in place beside him and pushed the reporter’s camera away.
“Close up is extra,” Gabrielle noted with a half-smile.
Jericho stared at the reporter for a little while longer before finally answering, “No comment.”
Leona came to stand beside Jericho’s other side and looked down at the reporter. “What question have you just troubled my vice chair with? Something regarding the future of Signum? Or irrelevant questions about the past?”
The reporter tensed before repeating the questions he’d just asked Jericho.
“Are you questioning my judgment in choosing my vice chair?” Leona asked, lifting her chin. Her molten gaze swept across the mass of cameras and her voice carried over their commotion. “If his past is as you say it is, then that just proves how effective the ELPIS Department is. It’s heartless and dishonorable to turn your back on people who want to change.”
Another reporter stepped forward, notepad in hand. She gestured to Gabrielle then to Leona. “You two just came off the same train, didn’t you? Did you ride in the same cart? Is there a reason that you two and several other first chairs are here? Is it just coincidence or is this a planned meeting?”
Leona’s eyes narrowed.
A wave of whispers abruptly spread across the crowd starting from the very back. Slowly, the crowd parted as a quintet of silhouettes made their way towards them. The familiar sharp and poignant smell of formaldehyde made wafted into Jericho’s senses followed by an even more familiar sound:
The crowd-parting figures finally made their way through the crowd and stopped short across from Jericho, Leona, and Gabrielle. Jericho instantly recognized the two who stood front most. Hårek, First Chair of the Medical Department, and Nadinaline, First Chair of the Assignment Department. Flanking Nadinaline’s left and right were the veiled peacekeepers he’d seen constantly at her side. Correction: they were corpses. Corpse bride. Corpses: like on the battlefield from Oros’s memories.
Clenching his fists, Jericho stared at Nadinaline long and hard.
She had been the one to bring Benì in to be baptized. She was the reason—no. She was only part of the reason, he realized. The saint candidates also were another part of the reason. ELPIS too. And Monadism. Monadism: the Monadic priests had also done things to Maria—
Jericho’s thought cut off as he registered another smaller figure stepping out from behind Nadinaline. The bright purple shade of their hair made them instantly identifiable.
“Gabrielle! Jericho!” came her sigh of relief. “I—” She glanced to her left at Nadinaline and shut her mouth.
Jericho felt the tension in his stomach lessen slightly. He then registered Moraeni of all people coming to a stand beside Ferris.
“Moraeni,” Gabrielle greeted the man. “Ferris, you too, huh? Now how did you get both here before me when our train left first?”
Moraeni shrugged half-heartedly in response.
A beat of silence passed. Then came the explosion of camera shutters and voices shouting over each other—
“What are five first chairs doing here?”
“Are you all here for the campaign?”
“What do you have to say about the chlorowheat issue?”
“Aries and Sagittarius have—”
“Near the Aquarian-Capricornian border—”
Gabrielle cupped her hands around her mouth and spoke over them: “Do you think we can put politics to the side for a moment and all grab lunch? I’m starving!”
* * *
Jericho felt awkward. At the moment, he was sitting at the far end of a long table inside a fine dining restaurant at the heart of the city. The interior decor of the restaurant reminded him vaguely of the Rosario Round of the Twin Cities: pillars holding up the ceiling, red carpeted flooring, and crystal chandeliers dangling from above. Sitting on his side of the table were Ferris and Gabrielle. Directly across from him sat Leona and beside her sat Moraeni, Nadinaline, and Hårek in that order. Nadinaline’s mediums were ‘parked’ on the bench just outside of the restaurant. From where Jericho sat, he could see them through the restaurant’s glass windows. Occasionally they would sway side-to-side.
The restaurant itself was half-full of men and women in suits and dresses. Occasionally, the men and women would cast glances in the direction of Jericho’s table and whisper amongst themselves. Most eyes —Moerani’s, Gabrielle’s and Ferris’s too—were glued to Leona.
A waiter approached their table, carefully balancing a tray full of food on his shoulder. He set down the tray on a stand and began nervously passing platters of food around the table. Twin soups for Nadinaline and Ferris, while Gabrielle had an artisan burger and Hårek had what appeared to be saucy meatballs. Moraeni had some type of rice dish. Much to Jericho’s surprise, the waiter moved to place a noodle dish in front of him. He hadn’t ordered anything.
Jericho grabbed the waiter’s wrist as the man turned to leave. “There is a mistake.”
The waiter startled.
“No, there isn’t,” Leona interjected.
Upon looking across the table, Jericho found that Leona had a similar dish placed in front of her. Leona held his gaze for a moment before picking her fork up and beginning her meal. Jericho stared at her and then at his plate for a moment before releasing the waiter.
The waiter dipped his head and scuttled away.
Nadinaline hummed as she lifted her veil just high enough so she could sip her soup with a spoon. “It’s not quite as good as what we have back home, no?”
Spoon half in mouth, Ferris glanced over at Leona tensely but said nothing.
“Seamus is stiff competition,” Nadinaline continued after a while, “especially with endorsement from the Ariesian prince and Sagittarius’s Seong Clan prince.”
Gabrielle, Leona, Moraeni, and Ferris all looked at Jericho simultaneously. Jericho stabbed his fork into a thick of pasta and shoved it all into his mouth.
“If Seamus’s journey and peace talks at the Aquarian-Capricornian border pay off—which I do hope it does—he’ll be an instant pick for many.” Nadinaline set her spoon down. “How troublesome these rolling elections are. It’s always the ones who do the most at the very end that reap the praise and rewards. The tortoise doesn’t win in this case, but the hawk that swoops in at the very end.”
Hårek arched a brow. “Is that a reference to the tortoise and the hair? I reckon you should at least offer some context before you make vague references like that. It’s poor communication.”
“Speaking of communications,” Nadinaline continued. “Saddine’s somehow become quite popular lately and Katharina’s moved down some since they found out her relative’s a member of the AAC.”
“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to speak about politics,” Gabrielle said, arching a brow and setting her burger down.
“Please, Gabrielle.” Hårek dabbed his lips with a napkin. “What else would we have to talk about. The weather? It’s terrible.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “The biggest hot topics right now—rather, the topics of greatest importance in the mind of the people—are ELPIS’s erratic behavior in the past few months and the missing children, the chlorowheat epidemic, and the cold war brewing between the northern and southern countries.”
Jericho’s head pounded.
He put his hand to his head, unsure of where the thought had come from. Cadence, most likely.
“It puts the Medical Department, the ELPIS Department, and International Relations in a unique spotlight,” Nadinaline rationalized. She glanced at Hårek. “You do have a lot on your plate, don’t you, Hårek?”
“The election is just taking away from the crisis we have here.” Hårek frowned, jabbing his finger down on the table. “There are anti-chlorowheat campaigns in Capricorn and Aquarius, but I have reason to believe that Capricorn’s medical board has been—”
“It would be best not to discuss sensitive matters in public,” Leona interjected, holding Hårek’s gaze. “This isn’t tableside gossip, but another country’s affairs. I suggest that you have a bit more pride.”
“A lecture in appropriateness from someone younger than me. It’s the people’s issue, so should it really be discussed behind closed doors as opposed to an open forum?” Hårek challenged. “Not that I’m suggesting we adopt the Ophiuchian way. However, since we’re in your country, I’ll respect your opinion.”
Nadinaline placed a hand on Hårek’s back. “I’m sure it’s just the stress, yes, Hårek? You have double the items to manage since Miss Wtorek is gone.” She glanced across the table at Gabrielle. “Do you have any clues on that, Gabrielle? You were quite close with Miss Wtorek, were you not?”
Gabrielle held Nadinaline’s gaze. “You have no idea how much I wish she’d tell me where she went off to before she left.”
Nadinaline remained silent before she added, “Is it something that has to do with Izsak—”
“You speak lightly of heavy topics. It makes it difficult for me to imagine how callously you’d speak of light matters.” Leona rose from the table. “Jericho, let’s go.”
Jericho stared at his now empty plate. “I’m not done eating yet.”
Leona’s gaze narrowed but she reached into her pocket and pulled out a slip of paper for him. “Fine. This is where we’ll be staying at. I expect to start our rounds at 7 am in the morning.”
Jericho accepted the paper and pocketed it with a nod. After offering Leona a wave, he watched her depart, then watched as Nadinaline and Hårek left too after they finished eating. Ferris stayed behind, but Nadinaline didn’t seem to mind it. Now only he, Gabrielle, Moraeni, and Ferris remained.
They sat in silence for a stretch as they finished up their meals. After a while, Moraeni said, “You’re doing good in the polls, Gabe.”
Gabrielle looked up at him and rubbed the back of her neck. “Neck-in-neck with Seamus of all people. If he cleans up things with the AAC by the end of this month, he’ll be five necks ahead of me. It’s like the perfect setup.”
There was another lapse of silence. Ferris held Jericho’s gaze and bit her lips.
“I still believe in you, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered her a thumbs up.
Gabrielle snapped up to look at him. Her expression was stricken, and her shoulders sagged slightly as she leaned back in her chair. “Do you know what happened to the two last people who said that to me?”
Intuition: Talib and Izsak.
“Sometimes I wonder if there’s even a p…” Gabrielle shut her mouth and yawned instead. “Anyways, it seems like our prince is getting involved in politics after all. Any idea why he’s giving the sudden endorsement?”
Jericho thought on how best to put it: “Messy politics. Blackmail… A bribe?”
Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her neck again. “What sort of mess has our prince gotten himself into this time?”
“He wants Aries to lower the tariffs on Capricorn,” Jericho replied plainly. “Aries’s joint tariffs with Sagittarius.”
“Capricorn…” Gabrielle drew slowly before her gaze softened a bit. “I see—”
“Oh, Gabe, Gabe, Gabe.”
Jericho looked up to find the waiter from earlier approaching their table with three bottles of wine in hand. The man set them on the table before popping a bottle open with a cork.
“I’m sorry, but we didn’t order these…” Ferris began before her eyes widened as her gaze flitted up to the man’s face.
Jericho followed her gaze and saw a familiar tattoo in the shape of a scorpion crawling from the nape of the man’s neck down his collarbone.
“Scorpio,” Gabrielle greeted the man with a curt nod. “Appreciate the visit, but aren’t you too busy with your campaign to be stopping by here? I saw your billboards in Scorpio—the country. They were nice. It was nice of your parents to put them up for you.”
Scorpio remained silent for a moment before a thin smile split across his lips. “Aren’t you going to finish what you were saying earlier? A leader should finish everything they start, shouldn’t they? Or else the sheep will wander around lost forever.”
Gabrielle arched a brow.
“I’ll remind you. You were saying that you’re not sure if there’s any point in participating in or even winning the election,” Scorpio continued. “You’re right on the mark. There is no point in winning this election. There never was. At least not for you. If you win the election, what do you hope to change? Every policy you push will take decades to implement and only weeks to overturn and amend. And you don’t have decades, Gabrielle.” His smile fell slightly. “The syzygy is just around the corner.”
The syzygy. Conta and Tau had not been very revealing of anything on that topic. Lack of trust.
“Has Cadence learned anything from the ELPIS leaders that I assume she’s working with now? Perhaps little tidbits here and there? Even if you gain the knowledge, the most you’ll be able to do is push back the time frame of the inevitable.” He snapped his fingers and turned back to Gabrielle. “By the way, I took a peek at the preliminary voting tickets after it was all over and done with just for fun—”
“Are you willing to say that on record?” Gabrielle interjected.
“Both Nadinaline and Hårek voted for you during the preliminary round of the elections, Gabe,” Scorpio continued. “Seeing how they chose Elizabeta and Ferris as their vice chairs, they might have a soft spot for you.”
Yes. Jericho remembered Atienna mentioning that peculiarity.
“William Saovàng voted for you too. That’s Ariesian loyalty for you.” Scorpio gave a singular clap. “That does bring certain loyalties into question though…”
“What are you implying…?” Moraeni pressed, frowning.
“Someone in your inner circle didn’t vote for you, Gabrielle,” Scorpio finished, pulling back with a smile. “You’re bright. I know that paranoia’s been swimming around in the back of your head like a fish. It’s only natural for a wayward leader to have wayward sheep.”
“Stop heckling her, Talib,” Ferris murmured, fists clenched on the table.
“I’m helping her, Ferris, not heckling,” he replied calmly before placing a hand on his chest. “You always think help is heckling when you’re young. Then you grow old at the end of the road and realize the slap on the wrist was actually an extended hand.”
Jericho frowned too.
“Speaking of sheep and shepherds…” Scorpio turned to Jericho and leaned across the table to face him. “I’ve warned you already, partner. I’m not one to stop people from following their passions and feelings. People pursue their passions and what makes them content and happy. That’s why Benì decided to step into the role of Cancer. Oh—I’m sure he’d still enjoy taking photos with you from time to time, by the way, so don’t feel shy. He still is Benì, after all.”
The flashes from the camera shutters of the reporters Jericho had seen only two hours before echoed in his mind.
“The point is that I still care for you, partner, just as I care for everyone you’re connected to.” He leaned in even closer. “The vase is about to break. Like I said, the hairline fractures were already there to begin with.” Abruptly, Scorpio pulled back and stared out the window. When he turned back to Jericho, there was a confused look on his face. He pointed to the bottles of wine on the table. “Did you… pay for that already?”
Silently, Gabrielle drew out her wallet and handed the man a thick was of Ariesian bills. The waiter grimaced slightly in turn before flashing a smile.
“Keep the change,” Gabrielle added.
The waiter walked away with a hop in his step.
“Gabrielle,” Moraeni said suddenly, placing a hand on Gabrielle’s arm from across the table. “I owe you my life. Please don’t doubt yourself. Ever.”
Gabrielle blinked, appearing dazed. She then chuckled. “When you come in out of the blue saying reassuring stuff like that, it really hurts the ego, you know?”
Moraeni released her. “I was a potential saint candidate for Pisces in the past,” he drew slowly, meeting Ferris’s eyes then Jericho’s. “I haven’t told anyone this before, but I was chosen near the end of the war.”
Gabrielle frowned at him. “Why are you telling this story now—”
Ferris tensed, her face becoming pale. She scooted back slightly and her arm brushed Jericho’s elbow. “But…”
“I had nothing left after the war ended. I figured that dedicating myself to Monadism wasn’t such a bad thing.” He glanced at Gabrielle and his expression became briefly pained. “Izsak and Gabrielle swept me away into Ophiuchus instead. Gabrielle said we could do better things that way. Gabrielle, you said that even though we might not be the ones to see the better thing, it would still be worth it. I still believe that. Your ideas are good. You do good.” He looked back at Jericho then Ferris. “If it weren’t for them, I’d be just like…”
Ferris looked back in the direction of the waiter as a lapse of silence passed.
“Just trust me when I say to trust her,” Moerani finished.
“We are almost there.” Jericho nodded at Gabrielle, offering a thumbs up. “Don’t give up.”
* * *
The following morning, Leona tasked Jericho with handing out flyers, checking out billboards, and making promotional statements to passing pedestrians. He carried all the promotional materials with him in a large satchel and his suitcase. He felt odd: like a mailman from the Communications Department instead of a desk worker in ELPIS investigations. After comparing the two positions in his head, Jericho suddenly felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. They were not so much different.
“Vote for Leona,” he said to one passerby as he held out a flyer stiffly into their face. “Maybe.”
Cadence and Olive occasionally kept him company as he made his rounds, but they had to leave eventually to handle things on their ends. Jericho wished he could be with Cadence and Maria in their search for the one instead of being here.
“Vote for Leona…” he said to another, handing out a pin this time. “Or vote for someone else.”
As dawn transformed into dusk, Jericho found himself passing by a water fountain at the very center of the city. It was a stone structure with a spout in the shape of a lion’s head and a holding bowl accented with carved feathers. The square surrounding it was empty much to his surprise. He approached the fountain and stared down at his reflection in the basin. He did not find any of the other five there.
“You shouldn’t be out late. You’ll be swept away by the golden beast.”
Jericho turned sharply and found a trio of figures approaching him out from the narrow sidewalk to his left. Their faces were cloaked in black veils. Nadinaline and her mediums.
The woman chuckled. “That’s a little urban legend that’s made its home here, by the way. For this ‘context’ that Hårek was harping to me about earlier.”
There was an addition that Jericho had not fully considered about her earlier: he remembered seeing her during the war. She had directed an army of corpses at the borders to overtake enemy forces. Each person her mediums killed was resurrected as a puppet—unable to return their bones to the earth. An interruption of the cycle…?
Nadinaline came to a stop in front of him. They stood there in silence.
After an unknown amount of time passed, Jericho pointed to her closest medium. “Why?”
“Hm? Why I’m here? Well, I have an appointment that I need to get to. Or were you wondering why Ferris isn’t with me, dear? I gave her tonight off.”
Jericho shook his head. “I think… that this is something people would consider ‘not normal.’ They are corpses.”
Nadinaline motioned for one of the mediums with her hand, and it approached her stiffly. “Yes, they are. It’s completely legal. They’re no longer alive.”
“Who are they?” He paused, then amended: “Were they?”
“This is Marc,” Nadinaline explained casually, placing her hand on the medium’s shoulder. She gestured to the distant-standing medium. “That is Ilya. They were two peacekeepers who worked with me in my department half a decade ago. We became quite close before their untimely deaths. Dear Marc here even introduced me to his wonderful parents. They’re quite old—his parents. His mother is a bit off.”
“They were your friends,” Jericho concluded. He frowned.
Nadinaline’s head perked up at this and she seemed to appraise him through her veil. After a moment, she brought her hand up behind the veil over her mouth and laughed. It was a long and clear note. “Oh—oh dear. You’re more innocent than I thought.” After a moment, her laughter subsided and she folded her hands in front of her. “Do you not want to keep your friends by your side?”
Abruptly, Jericho recalled Francis’s words in Leo several months back: “People mourn for the dead but the dead are the ones who are at peace and have left everything behind as they return to the cycle. We should have sympathy instead for the ones who cling still to those who have passed and found peace. Desperately clinging to what remains of them and wishing them to return. We are selfish in our imaginations and our desires.”
“Oh?” Nadinaline blinked. “I just called you innocent and then you turn into a poet before my very eyes.” She chuckled. “The thing with mourning is that it passes with time. Not while one is living, of course. Mourning only stops when the mourner is dead. It’s not a permanent feeling, and there’s beauty in permanence—permanence as in nothing is lost or gained.” She hummed in thought. “Ah, well, mourning itself is a cycle. Once the mourner dies, another mourner to mourn them is created. And so on and so forth. That isn’t permanence either.”
Jericho stared. “What does this have to do with your mediums being corpses?”
In response, Nadinaline walked over to the fountain and sat down on its thick rim. She motioned to the area beside her.
He stared at her blankly, fists clenched. After some more thought and staring at Marc for a while, he moved to sit down beside her.
Half an hour later, a small figure hobbled into the square: an old woman with a hunched back and walking with a cane. As she came nearer and nearer, Jericho could make out that her eyes were a milky white color and that her face was lined with wrinkles in the darkness. Once she stopped only half a meter away from him, she looked around as if lost.
Nadinaline lifted her hand. Marc moved forward from where he stood beside her and stopped in front of the older woman. The woman in turn squinted up at him before reaching up past his veil to touch his face.
A beat of silence passed.
“Ah, there you are, Marc.” The old woman sighed and rubbed his face as he dipped his head low so she could better reach him. She squinted in Jericho’s direction. “Nadinaline, is that you?”
“Yes, it is, dear,” Nadinaline replied.
“How has my Marc been?” The old woman asked as she was guided over to sit at the fountain by the Marc-medium.
Nadinaline lifted her ringed fingers, seeming to direct Marc to sit beside the older woman. The medium then moved to hold the old woman’s hand.
“Oh, he’s been very good,” Nadinaline replied. “Very hardworking. Never leaves my side.”
“Just like his father!” the old woman laughed. “He always wanted to do good things—Marc. He has a good heart, you know? He always tried his best when he was younger.” She looked up at Marc. “It’s a shame that your voice is still damaged from your assignment two years ago. You had such a lovely singing voice…”
Something in Jericho’s heart stirred. He could not put his finger on it. Disgust, pity, empathy, warmth: all of it stewed over in his stomach. He wondered what Olive would think. Cadence always said Olive had the best moral compass. So: Good? Bad?
After the old woman spoke some more about her back aches, her garden, her cooking, and her husband to Marc, she started to yawn and rub her eyes. “Oh, I’m getting old. Getting too tired, too quick. Oh, but I can’t stay a little while longer. I haven’t seen you in forever, Marc…”
“Oh! Marc signed to me that he wants to walk you home,” Nadinaline added gently. “I think that’s a splendid idea.”
“Oh, I suppose that’s alright… You can’t leave me alone when you see me, can you?” The old woman mumbled with flushing cheeks and a pearly smile as Marc took her hand and guided her towards the alleyway she’d come from. “I’ll just borrow him for a moment then.”
“She’s senile,” Nadinaline explained afterwards, her gaze distant, her ringed fingers moving up and down as if they were playing a piano.
“But it’s a lie.”
“A lie of comfort,” Nadinaline seemed to agree. “Sometimes lies of comfort are required to allow people to continue forward. Is it so bad if it harms no one so long as the lie is kept constant? Only the privileged can apply morals and condemn things like lies so easily. Only the privileged can flip labels so easily too without consequence. At one point I was a war hero, you see? At another point a war criminal. And now I’m the first chair of a—how should I say—well, I shouldn’t say.” She tapped her free fingers to her lips. “You shouldn’t say things that aren’t respectful, should you?”
A lie of comfort.
Jericho thought of Francis and Cadence and the chlorowheat.
“A useful lie is one that has permanence,” she continued, glancing at Ilya. “One that never decays…”
Jericho frowned. Truth and lies. He had tried to tell Benì the truth but—“Benì. He became a saint candidate.”
“Yes, he did.” Nadinaline nodded. “Just before I left for Leo, in fact. I have to thank you for looking after him while I was busy with election materials—”
“Do you know what happens to people who become saint candidates?”
There was a beat of silence.
“If you’re talking about the elusive and mysterious ‘baptism’ of saint candidates in the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, then I must say I have an inkling.” Nadinaline’s eyes became half-lidded beneath her veil. “It’s not explicitly stated in the red folder that we receive when we become first chairs. No, it’s not listed with the information regarding energy levels, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, nor the manner in which ELPIS operates—though I doubt the details there are completely accurate. Intuition can, however, get one very far.” She let out a breath. “I was very fond of Talib. He was the best conversationalist. Always knew when to talk and when to listen, you see…?”
Jericho felt his chest seize again but refrained from reaching out to Olive. “Then why?”
“You want my reason?” Nadinaline smiled thinly. “I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t have one to give you. It was his choice in the end, wasn’t it?”
Jericho unclenched his fist. “He didn’t know any better.” Like Jericho himself had not known any better all those times before. An excuse? A reason. After turning over the two words over and over again in his head, he finally asked: “Did you have a reason for why you and Hårek voted for Gabrielle?”
Nadinaline turned to him sharply. “Who told you that?”
“Talib,” Jericho answered. “Scorpio.”
Nadinaline looked forward again. “I see…” She lolled her head slightly to the side. “Not to stereotype people, but Gabrielle has that Ariesian spark.”
Jericho cocked his head. “Ariesian spark.”
“Oh, dear, I’m sure you have at least one Ariesian friend who has the Ariesian spark. They just have something in them that lets them ignite action in others. Inspirational. All you have to do is witness that spark and you’ll catch flame yourself.” She hummed. “Or maybe it’s all just chance.”
Jericho thought of Olive during their very first synchronization meeting. His calling. Conjecture: a spark?
“This world doesn’t quite make sense, but we still choose to live and survive in it through little pains and big pains. When there’s a person who offers a moment of clarity, I can’t help but be drawn to them. That and Gabrielle’s woes and goals coincide with mine and she’s a far better public speaker that I’ll ever be, you see? She’s managed to prevent her title of ‘war hero’ from being tarnished.”
Jericho waited until Marc returned to Nadinaline’s side before he left.
* * *
Several days later, Leona brought Jericho with her to visit a string of Monadic temples in the city. Whenever they would enter one of the temples, Leona would be greeted by deep and reverent bows from the Monadic priests, temple attendees, and Espadas alike. Some—mostly the Espada—would even get on their hands and knees and touch their foreheads to Leona’s feet. Almost always after Leona gave her campaign speech to them and Jericho handed out fliers, the priests would gift them with large baskets full of wines, foods, and other items.
A bit much, ain’t it? Cadence noted when she swung by in a light synchronization. They call ELPIS cult-y but this is pretty extra. Well, that’s what happens when ya pedestal things too much. Ya see, detective, it ain’t too hard ta be drawn into bad things. No character fault of your own.
Atienna on the other hand seemed less curious about the devotions of those in the temple and instead. I wonder… Given how Monadic Leo as a country is, you would think that most Conductors would plan to vote for Leona just because of her status as their saint candidate. Leonian Conductors make up only 5% of the votes, so while it’s good to invest time here, it would be better spent cultivating votes elsewhere—don’t you think?
Although Jericho didn’t understand politics, he relayed this question to Leona after they completed their greetings with the Monadic priests.
“It’s good to gather new sheep and collect more ants,” Leona explained quietly once the priests and Espadas had left to retrieve gift baskets for them, “but you shouldn’t neglect the ones that are already beneath your boot or in your care. You should have pride in everything that’s in your domain…” Her eyes narrowed as her gaze trailed towards the returning priests.
The words rang in Jericho’s head as his thoughts drifted again to Oros’s memories. He eyed the plastic-wrapped gift baskets in the priests’ hands. As he attempted to make out the contents of the baskets, he suddenly felt a shiver explode out from his back and spill into his hands. His legs gave in beneath him, and he tumbled to the floor. Leona caught him just in time and he was assisted to one of the pews by the Monadic priests.
Leona knelt beside him. Eyes narrowed, she whispered, “What is it? Who?”
Jericho remained silent. Eventually, Leona left to speak with the priests. Jericho was still not familiar with the feeling.The pain. The shivering. The nausea. His heartbeat didn’t feel right either. One of the others. It had to be.
After some time passed, Leona returned to his side and guided him out the temple. They wove through the city and returned to their hotel room where Leona sat him down with a glass of water. Jericho was uncertain about her gestures but the sickly ghost pain was more on his mind than she was.
It was not too long after that the answer arrived: Werner.
The fallout that followed this was overwhelming: chlorowheat, Francis, the lies, Werner, denial, shouting, Cadence and Olive, and then finally Maria. Jericho’s intuition had been right—there had been something wrong— but he found no pride in it because he had not acted on it.
Seeing Werner was like that reminded Jericho of Benì’s recent fall and of Scorpio and Talib. Someone was once again slipping away. Jericho therefore held on tightly with all his might. He slotted times to synchronize in with and visit Werner and even convinced him to speak with Alice.
It was like that unspoken phrase Olive said.
Hope for recovery.
* * *
The next several days were a blur. Jericho spent most of the time in bed: his limbs and head aching unfamiliarly yet familiarly. This feverish, sweating, too hot yet too cold feeling reminded him of the time when he’d been deathly sick when he was much younger. It was a faded and worn away memory. He couldn’t remember who had taken care of his younger self at that time: his mother or Theta. He did his best to take on the pain as he had offered to do so for Werner and the others.
It took approximately a day afterwards for Jericho to feel well enough to get out of bed. Correction: it took him one day to feel well enough to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself in the bed of his hotel room with Leona at his side. There was a book in her hands.
“You’re awake.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “What happened?”
Jericho stared at the ceiling. He tried a lie, “I had a heat stroke.”
He thought to himself again: he should have trusted his intuition, but instead he had trusted Werner. Werner had lied, just as Jericho himself had lied to Francis. Intuition and truth was not enough. Lies.
“Don’t insult me,” Leona said thickly, “You’re a True Conductor. It isn’t difficult to connect the dots. I’m sure Scorpio’s connected them already.”
Jericho blinked at her, thinking. “You don’t know. He hasn’t told you. Or he doesn’t know either.”
Leona regarded him for a moment before she said gently, “You can trust me. I do care for your well-being.”
Trust. Werner’s word. Theta and the other ELPIS leaders had trusted Leona too.
“But you lied,” Jericho scrambled internally to reason. They were not a part of this deal anymore, so he had no reason to disclose the information to her. Even if the deal was still active, he wouldn’t have disclosed it either. “On Maria’s ship—you lied. You said you were the Golden Beast. You’re not.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. Besides, you do realize the golden beast is a Leonian old fable, right?” Leona sighed and crossed her legs. “I do admit she’s made it her own and revived it from unuse, but it wasn’t originally hers to begin with.”
Alpha’s voice rang in Jericho’s ears: Everything that you have right now is not really yours. Everything was taken from someone else or given to you by someone else.
“Alpha…” Jericho clenched the sheets as the name slipped out from his mouth. Another wave of nausea wracked his stomach but he fought against it and rose to a sit. This uncomfortableness was unfamiliar to him. A new experience. An unpleasant one.
“You’re not concerned about him,” Jericho said, staring at her. “He took children. He spread chlorowheat. He will attack Ophiuchus. But you’re not concerned.” The back of his head buzzed. “You want to refuel the reservoirs with his attack.” He frowned. “But he has bleached vitae. The vitae won’t elevate as much. Why?”
“Would you be concerned by the buzz of a fly?” Leona asked calmly. After a pause, she frowned and her eyes glinted. “Do you not realize how insulting your words are? How long do you think I’ve dealt with Alpha as an adversary—”
“Fifteen years,” Jericho said. “That is not a long time. From your perspective.”
Instead of replying, Leona’s eyes narrowed and asked, “It was the Capricornian, wasn’t it? The one causing your pain right now?”
He perked up but then looked away. “No.”
Leona chuckled lightly and strangely before sighing. “Scorpio has put him as a person to keep an especially keen eye on since he and one other are the most likely to find themselves in danger. In Herr Waltz’s case, it’s a danger from within.” She paused as if letting the words settle in. “We’re aware of a particular issue he has, although I’m not sure if you’re aware of it. Since Scorpio is Herr Waltz’s direct contact, he is the one who handles him—though I’m sure you’re aware of how Scorpio handles people.” Another pause. “And by particular issue, I mean a chlorowheat issue.”
They knew. And they did nothing. Jericho tried not to listen and felt his cheeks burn. Werner would feel ashamed if he somehow overheard.
“I’ve heard, however, that Herr Waltz is continuing his operation at the border as normal.”
Jericho reached out for Cadence. She answered his call, despite being in the middle of an AAC meeting. As soon as she got her bearings on his situation, she swore.
Best ta play this easy.
“He had an incident,” Jericho admitted. “But he is okay now. He is better—”
“You must be disappointed.”
Jericho frowned, and he felt Cadence frown too.
After a while, Leona continued, “What were you saying about fifteen years ago?”
Jericho tensed. He had led that information slip on accident—
Wait! Saints. I dunno how I didn’t think of it before. This is the perfect blackmail! Leo was goin’ against the frickin’ saint candidates this entire time before turnin’ face. How do ya think they’d react if they found out Leo here was battin’ for the other side?
Jericho lifted his head and locked eyes with Leona. “You’re from here.”
Leona smiled as if amused. “I am the Saint Candidate of Leo, Jericho.”
“You were Leonhart.”
Leona merely chuckled. “Yes—”
“Did you pick me as vice chair also because I reminded you of Epsilon? Because I am ‘innocent.’”
Leona stopped short.
“You helped ELPIS during the war and before it. And then you betrayed them—”
Leona was on him in an instant, leaping on top of him and pinning him by the throat to his bed. After staring at her in confusion, he pushed back against her with difficulty until she pulled away. She stood there at the foot of his bed breathing heavily. Even still, somehow, she held an air of elegance.
After a pause, she eased back down into her chair and her breathing calmed. “Did you finally discover this through Theta’s records? I assumed Omicron destroyed them all—”
“No. Through Epsilon.”
Leona stiffened again. “So he’s with one of you. Epsilon would never show you—”
“He showed Maria.”
Leona showed no change in expression.
“What makes you think you deserve to know my reasons? It’s simple: disappointment.”
Jericho considered it. “Disappointment in other people does not make me want to abandon them. It makes me want to help them.” A voice whispered in the back of his head: “Disappointment in oneself, however, might cause one—”
“You should watch your tongue, Jericho,” Leona interjected in a steely tone. “You’re valuable as a True Conductor, but there will always be more to replace you.” Upon looking him over, she added in a gentler tone: “I’m assuming those words weren’t from you, so I advise you to hold their tongues.”
Jericho continued, “If the other saint candidates discovered that, what do you think they’d do? They don’t know. You’re lying to them.”
Cadence squirmed in the distance as Leona’s eyes narrowed.
“The strong don’t have a need to lie,” Jericho said. “That’s what Maria says. Intuition: that’s what they teach in the orphanage. Like Maria. You were both in Gloria houses.”
“As I said—watch your tongue,” Leona replied thickly. “I am nothing like that woman. I took on this role, while she decided to be swept away.” She added after a beat: “Do you find any fault with me killing the people who would eventually become ELPIS leaders? You have a personal vendetta against them, don’t you? That’s why you joined my department.”
“At that point…” Jericho felt the gears in his head turning. “They… hadn’t committed any crimes. At that point, they didn’t need to be brought to justice. You could have stopped them if you stayed with them.” He ruminated. “You said ‘disappointment,’ but why? Why was that a reason?”
Instead of addressing the question again, Leona returned, “Where is he? Where is Epsilon? He’s with Theta, isn’t he—”
“He is with Maria,” Jericho answered.
Leona’s jaw tightened.
“So… it appears as if we’re at a sort of impasse.” She crossed her arms. “Usually, such rude and demeaning threats and accusations would be met with equivalent retribution, but I’ll be lenient this time. For now, I’ll allow whatever you’re machinating in the background to continue as is as long as you continue to bring in True Conductors. It’s not as if what you do will matter in the end anyways.”
That’s one way ta say ‘let’s both look the other way.’ Saints, Cadence finally thought, breaking her silence. This is why politics is always a pain. Never know what ground ya stand on.
“They all looked up to you, Leo,” Jericho said after a beat.
Leona regarded him. “Did they hold me on a pedestal or did I hold them on a pedestal? Who disappointed who?”
“The bells.” Jericho fell back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. “Do you hear them?”
“They’re always ringing.” Leona rose from her chair. “Your health is worth more than my campaign here. You’ll rest until your counterpart recovers completely. I expect you to use my discretion wisely and I expect your discretion in turn.”
Would ya look at that, came Cadence’s thought. Leona’s more human than we thought. Well, we should probably still keep the whole Alpha issue we’re dealin’ with on the down low. ‘Cause—ya know—most people can’t look the other way forever.
* * *
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
A day after, Jericho attended a synchronization meeting in which Maria disclosed the location where she believed Alpha—the one—requested to meet her at. Her orphanage. Her beginning. But not her end—she had clarified. She said Alpha was not his end either. Yes. Jericho was glad that she said this, but at the same time something about the intensity in her eyes ‘unnerved’ him. It was a different brightness than the one he usually associated with Maria.
That night when he was feeling somewhat well enough, Jericho slipped back into Ophiuchus while Leona was asleep. He walked the entire way from the gate located on the outskirts of a train station halfway between central Ophiuchus and the border of Leo to the living complexes at the edges of the Serpens Establishment. Once he reached the apartment that was his destination, he rapped on its door again and again and again. After the sixth rap, the door cracked open and Alice’s head poked out.
“Jericho?” she pressed, adjusting her glasses. “What are you doing here? I thought you were headed to Leo.”
Jericho blinked down at her. “Vitae, please. Olive is asking a favor.”
Alice stiffened, glanced back and forth down the terrace before jerking him inside.
“Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be moving around through—” She stopped short after studying his face. “What happened?”
Instead of answering, Jericho wrapped his arms around her.
Alice stiffened again before returning the gesture. She brought him to her kitchen table and sat him down with a cup of warm water. “Do you want me to listen or do you want my advice?”
“I don’t know.”
Alice nodded. After fifteen minutes passed, he began to tell her everything that happened in the short time he’d been away. He also elaborated on all the things he had kept discreet regarding Alpha. She listened to the entire story from beginning to end without speaking.
Afterwards, she ruminated for a long while before asking, “Werner—that’s the man that Scorpio’s vitae entered back during the Week of Blindness, correct?”
Frowning, she set down her tea. “Whoever prescribed him that medication doesn’t deserve to be called a doctor. I also have concerns about this so-called prescribed morrowheat and chlorowheat that’s being circulated through Capricorn. I’ll bring it to the attention of the Medical Department myself so that you’re not implicated.” She held his gaze. “I believe Werner in this case may be one of many victims in a corrupt system that favors productivity over health.”
“I had intuition, Alice. I knew—I had a feeling something was wrong—but I trusted him.” He bowed his head as he recalled the rumble that had torn through “Like Francis trusted me.” And he still hadn’t faced Francis since then.
Not a lie of permanence.
“I’ll make special time in my schedule for Werner.” Alice reached across the table and held his hand. “Although it’s not my area of expertise, I’ll try my best after consultation with some of my colleagues familiar in this field. Given the tightness of our schedules, I would like for these appointments to be on time.”
“Werner is good with schedules and deadlines,” Jericho reassured her. “He never misses anything. Except when…” He trailed off.
Alice nodded, moving to take another sip of her tea “And this Alpha… Other than searching for him due to his crimes, I suspect you have a secondary motivation.”
“He is the one, Alice. He… lied. He manipulated us. Tricked us. And he’s the—”
“He’s the reason—perhaps,” Alice replied, “but you’re also seeking a reason from him, aren’t you? The difference in the way you and the others and Maria were treated. His apathy now versus his push for you to fulfill ELPIS’s goals back then.”
Jericho remained silent.
“People don’t need a reason from people who’ve hurt them,” Alice continued. “The reason will never be enough—especially in your case, Jericho. ‘Reason’ is not the same as ‘closure.’ You’ll constantly be searching for it, and the answer may never satisfy you.”
Again, Jericho remained silent.
Afterwards, Alice spilled her vitae into the device Jericho had constructed with Olive’s instruction over the past few days. Up close, the white tubes crisscrossing the sphere in an ordered fashion were visible and soon
“It is like a proto-conductor,” Jericho explained. “But improved with Marta John’s modification to the proto-conductors.”
“Marta John…” Alice drew slowly. “That’s the Ariesian conductor engineer who developed the vitaespetrophotometer.”
Jericho felt something tighten in his chest. He nodded. “Olive says it works like a donut.” He made the shape with both of his hands. “People who are at the center of the donut are not affected, so if you activate it you will not be affected. Only people in the ‘dough’ of the donut will be affected. Immobilized. ‘Theoretically’.”
Alice sighed, placing a hand on her hip. “To be frank with you, what your proposing this device does sounds like a miracle. My vitae wasn’t strong enough to completely stop… Scorpio”—she paused— “in Capricorn back in winter. Is this powerful enough to stop a saint candidate or someone who has an unusual amount of vitae inside of them?”
“I don’t understand the ‘science’ behind it but the effect is ‘amplified,’” Jericho explained to her promptly, “but it is a ‘trial run’.”
* * *
Upon slipping back into his hotel room, Jericho discovered Leona awake and waiting for him in their shared living room. She was sitting on the sofa with a book in her lap and glanced up at him as he slipped through the door.
Jericho avoided her gaze. “I had late night cravings, so I went… to satiate them.”
Leona let out a long and quiet sigh. “Jericho, let’s not play these meaningless games.”
“Your life as a True Conductor is inexplicably valuable to me.” Leona slowly rose from her chair. “Does this matter have to do with Alpha? You do realize that I’m still the first chair of the ELPIS Investigations Department. Your complaints regarding what you perceive as the mishandling of the Alpha case have reached my ears.”
Jericho looked to the side.
“Alpha was the one to take Maria when she was younger, was he not? That’s not difficult to deduce from history. He has also taken several of the children from our orphanages. He has Rho at his side as well as children he’s converted.” Leona approached him. “I assume from the remnants of ELPIS skirmishes our department has been keeping track of across Signum, Maria has crossed him at least once. They’ve both been rather elusive, but I’m assuming they’re bound to meet again soon.” She crossed her arms. “Do you believe in Maria’s strength to face Alpha?”
Leona held his gaze. “Alone?”
Thinking otherwise felt like a betrayal of Maria, but Jericho still found himself saying, “We have other reasons to face Alpha-reasons that would be ‘bad’ for us if…” He struggled to explain himself as Cadence and Olive rattled at the back of his head. He eventually settled on, “Discretion. Like you said.”
“I don’t need assistance in handling someone like Alpha if you’re concerned about the other saint candidates or your fellow departmental agents discovering your hobbies, Jericho,” Leona replied. “All I care for at the moment is the safety of our assets for the syzygy.”
* * *
Jericho—suitcase in tow—and Leona were on the train bound to Alfablanca that night. As morning rose, they reached the lip of the city right when Maria was laying down the gates in her old orphanage. They moved through the town and up the cliff at the town’s edge as Maria headed into the temple to confront Alpha.
When Jericho and Leona were halfway up the cliff, Jericho heard Dominic challenge Maria to a duel. As he tried to offer his assistance, he was immediately shoved backwards through his connection with her. The force of it caused him to stagger slightly. “She is pushing me away.”
Leona held him steady as they continued forward. “Your connection with each other must be exceptionally strong for her to be able to hold you at bay—that’s good for the syzygy. Of course, that may just be her sense of self coming into play.”
It was terrible: the anxiety that built and built as Jericho neared the temple at the very top of the cliff. The fear. These feelings were unfamiliar to Maria—Jericho knew.
When the temple loomed into view, Jericho recognized the group of suited men standing at its entrance. The Foxman’s men. Just in front of them sat El, Epsilon, and Andres. A searing pain began to bubble up his left arm as Jericho finally brushed past them and entered the temple alongside Maria. He was immediately met with the sight of a blinding white fog caging the inside of the temple. Up above hung familiar brass, copper, silver bells. Just below them—
There she was. On the ground. Maria. Her arm was entangled in a chain that extended out of the open doorway on the opposite side of the temple where the one and Rho stood calmly side-by-side.
No. That was not the most important thing. Maria—she was in pain, but despite this she held onto the chain tightly. Maria. In pain—throbbing up the left arm. Losing. Maria and losing: two ideas that did not coexist together in his mind. His Maria—just like he was her Jericho. Like Ayda, Talib, Benì, Werner.
Jericho did not realize it was himself who had shouted Maria’s name until his voice was ringing in his ears. He stepped forward, intending to blow through the wall of mist. A ghost of a hand stopped him short. Upon turning, Jericho registered Olive. His eyes were wide and wild.
“You’ll get hurt too, Jericho.” He turned to snap at “Claire, come on—!”
Jericho whipped his attention to the side and registered Andres kneeling on the floor and muttering a prayer to himself. El and Epsilon sat beside him, shaking the man roughly. Leona’s eyes were glued onto the very latter.
“Epsilon…” Leona’s eyes widened. She hesitated for a moment before extending her hand out to him. “You need to leave immediately.”
Epsilon recoiled away from her in clear confusion. “Wha? Who are you? I can’t. Leo…” His gaze trailed to Maria. “We have to help Leo—”
“I’m Leo,” Leona pressed, grabbing a hold of his arm. She pulled a conducting blade from her waist and activated with a flick of her hand. The gold light warmed her face. “They’ve been deceiving you. You need to leave. I’ll handle this—”
“What? No, no, no. You’re… You’re not Leo. How could you even call yourself that?” Epsilon murmured, shaking his head and meeting Leona’s eyes after glancing at her conductor. “Your conducting is the same, but I can look in your eyes and I can tell. There’s no warmth.”
A perturbed look crossed Leona’s face.
No, this was not important.
Jericho returned his attention forward.
There: Rho, standing idly beside Alpha.
Jericho clicked open his suitcase and ignored the papers and fliers that spilled out from it. He grabbed his conductor from within as the colorful sheets were picked up by the wind and thrown around the temple. The bells began to ring. With all of his might, he aimed his suitcase and threw it at Rho. The suitcase hurtled across the distance before—crack!—it collided with Rho’s chest. The sheer force of it sent the woman flying backwards out the temple and onto the field behind the temple. She rolled to a stop near the edge of the cliff.
The white wall of mist dimmed slightly and began to lose its shape, but did not go away completely.
Regardless, Jericho whipped off his suit jacket, wrapped it over his head, and charged through the mist. As soon as he broke through the veil, he darted to Maria’s side. The floor beneath her body was soaked in her blood but she still gripped the chain wrapped around her arm tightly. He tried to hold her, but she pulled away and locked eyes with him. Her eyes—they burned with a fiery intensity.
Jericho understood. He reached for the chain, but before he could grip it, a flash of gold suddenly seared across his vision. He barely activated his conductor fast enough to throw out a whip to block the incoming blow. The golden blade shatter as soon as it contacted his vitae, and its wielder stumbled backwards.
“See, you can’t even beat me on your own!” the adolescent snapped, lifting his chin. He looked Jericho up and down. “Who are you?” He eyed Jericho’s armband— “A peacekeeper?”—and then Jericho’s vitae with a frown— “But your vitae… it’s almost white…”
Jericho rose to his feet and tightened his grip on his conductor as he held Dominic’s gaze.
Dominic: A child. An arrogant one, but also someone who was also tricked. Someone who deserved pity?
Jericho eyed the conductor in the boy’s hand. Yes. He would destroy that instead. He lifted his conductor to follow through with the action, but was abruptly tackled to the side by another person and subsequently pinned down by the arms.
Andres said nothing, locking eyes with Jericho as he continued to push him down. Words did not need to be said. The context came from the flashes Jericho received from Maria. Jericho realized it then. He was looking into a mirror of the past: at himself when he’d been wholeheartedly dedicated to ELPIS’s belief system. The cycle, the turn of it, the corruption and sin that conductors brought. The desperation to dedicate and to please. To prove dedication.
Grimacing and apologizing internally, Jericho kicked the man back with all of his might. Andres flew backwards, crashing into Dominic behind him and sending them both flying to the ground. The two struggled to a stand as Leona finally moved forward away from Epsilon. She threw seven activated vitae blade at the shroud of mist—one after the other. The first two disintegrated as they passed through the first wall of mist, but created a path for the five other blades. The third and fourth blade were dissolved by the last wall of mist, but once again created a path for the other blades to follow. The remaining blades skewered Alpha’s left arm, causing him stagger back.
“Beta,” Leona said out loud, peering through the fog at the field beyond it where Conta, Albatross, and Simon were holding steadfastly to the chain. She reached for another conducting blade.
T-This is getting too out of hand. Jericho, try—
Mind racing, Jericho reached into his pocket and pulled out the sphere he’d brought with him and slapped his finger down at the small nodule at its head without a second thought. A high-pitched whine emanated from the sphere before it began to pulsate with light. All eyes turned towards Jericho—towards the sphere—before a large ring of light expanded out from the sphere’ body and hurtled outwards, increasing in intensity as it grew.
When the ring of light faded just at the very outskirts of the temple, a collection of thuds echoed around Jericho as the bells above rang loud and the campaign leaflets cascaded downwards.
As Jericho’s eyes fully adjusted, he registered that Leona, Andres, Dominic, and Epsilon were on the floor motionless. Alpha too. Their eyes were open and flicking side-to-side, indicating alertness. The ones standing on the outskirts of the temple—Conta, Simon, Albatross, and even Rho—remained unaffected and appeared confused.
Rho surveyed her surroundings before she shrugged, turned on her heels, and leapt off the cliff without warning. Conta made to dart after her, but stopped short and continued to hold onto the chain extending off the cliff alongside Simon and Albatross.
“Jeri…” Maria whispered, drawing Jericho’s attention downwards. She was still gripping the chain. “Help me.”
Jericho felt his heart drop. He wrapped both of his hands around the chain and began to pull, pull, pull with all of his might alongside Maria, Conta, Simon, and Albatross. Slowly, painfully, they collectively brought the chain further and further up into the temple. With one final tug, they pulled the mass of bodies tied together back up onto the cliff. Those entangled in the chains clambered on top of each other; and two sides seemed to be struggling against each other. Among the chaos, Jericho saw Emmanuel jump on top of a child and pin them to the ground. Eventually, Emmanuel’s side overpowered and subdued the other side.
Maria finally fell backwards as she registered this. Jericho moved forward quick enough to catch her head before it hit the floor. He stared at her, vision swimming as he stared at her arm. He didn’t know what to do.
El’s a Transmutationist—
Craning his neck back, he called out for El.
El, shrouded by one of the suit jackets belonging to one the Foxman’s men, immediately darted through the mist and skidded to a halt beside Maria and Jericho. She cast a concerned glance back at Andres before moving to assess Maria. Only after a second after doing this, El looked up at him sharply.
“We need to get her to a hospital. Or to the ELPIS leader’s room—
Jericho immediately whipped out his conductor and severed the lower part of the chain from Maria’s arm. He swept her up with difficulty into his arms and began to stumble towards the entrance of the temple with El at his side. Before he could make it past the threshold, Conta was beside him.
“Let me take her. I said let me take her!” she snapped, prying Maria from his arms. “You need to be gentler. You’re being too rough.”
Jericho stared at her in surprise but—after some resistance—released Maria into her arms. He walked alongside the two, gripping Maria’s good hand tightly the entire time. Once they entered the adjacent orphanage, El ran up to and opened the gate on the chalkboard inside and began to help Conta carry Maria through it.
Jericho started to follow them through, but—
“Proteus, Jeri,” Maria managed. Proteus. My children. My crew—
Jericho stopped short, still gripping Maria’s hand tightly. Holding her gaze for just a second longer, he released her and turned on his heels.
Upon re-entering the temple, he passed by Andres, Leona, Epsilon, and even Alpha—
The kids. The kids—
He exited out the opposite side of the temple, brushed past the crowd at the edge of the cliff, and peered down the steep drop. Below, the ocean waves surged wildly against the rocks. In the distance, he could spy a familiar wooden ship sailing south. Too far to reach.
Gripping his fist, Jericho returned to the temple and came to a halt before Alpha. The man was flat on his back and staring up at the bells that swayed up above them. Upon registering Jericho, he managed a smile despite the damage to his arm.
“Ah, so we meet face-to-face, Jericho,” he said. “You’ve grown super tall, haven’t you? Oh? And you wear glasses now? Well, I knew that already.” He laughed. “That’s quite an interesting conductor you’ve got there. Absolutely fascinating. To be able to hold down Leona and me—well, we’re nothing compared to saint candidates—but it does make you think.”
Jericho sank to his knees before the man and stared down at him.
“What do you want from me now, Jericho?” Alpha pondered out loud. “I already gave you an answer. Are you still unsatisfied? I thought you of all people would understand the importance of freedom and letting go. You let Ayda and all your friends go, didn’t you?”
Jericho’s eyes widened and he cracked the man hard across the face. Blood flew out from his mouth.
Alpha merely laughed through his blood-stained teeth. “Jericho, you need to let go.”
Jericho cracked him again.
It was his fault. Alpha. The one. Ayda and everyone. And everything.
“You chose to follow what we asked and that’s all—”
And again. And again.
“You decided it wasn’t right for you in the end and left.”
And again. Again. Again.
“Nothing more and nothing less—”
Jericho, that’s enough!
Jericho stopped short and turned to find Olive’s image at his side. Olive placed a hand on his shoulder, causing Jericho to recall how Olive had stayed with him after what had happened to Benì. Slowly, he dropped his fist. That was when he noticed that the Foxman’s men were ringed around him. They wore varying expressions: surprise, fear, reluctance. Maximillian, who stood among them, grimaced.
“Shit…” he grumbled. “Remind me not to get on your damned bad side. Anyways, what the fuck do we do now? Obviously, this wasn’t part of the plan.”
“We need to help the others into the gate,” Jericho said stonily, glancing out the back of the temple towards the cliff where Simon and Albatross were helping free the ones entangled in the chains. “If Scorpio has any medium’s here, they have been disintegrated by Rho’s conducting. Intuition: he may come to investigate. Solution: we move quickly.”
Maximilian jerked his head towards the crowd standing at the cliff. Maria’s crew seemed to still be struggling against a few of the children Alpha had converted. “What about them?”
“Solution.” Jericho cracked his fist one more time against Alpha’s head, knocking him out cold. He proceeded to slap the suppression cuffs from his belt over the man’s wrist. He put two more on for good measure.
“Some solution,” Maximilian grumbled. He jerked his head to the side. “What do we do about her?”
Jericho followed the man’s gaze to Leona who laid between Andres and Dominic.
Cadence, Atienna, and Olive fogged the back of his mind. They were only partially synchronized in with him. Maria had most of their attention. To leave or to take was the decision to be made. Atienna was silent in the discussion.
Silently, Jericho approached Leona and locked eyes with her. He knelt to the ground and pulled another pair of suppression cuffs from his belt. “Discretion,” he said before slapping them over her wrists. When she fell limp, he stood up, pointed to her, and addressed the suited men: “Could you carry her back too? Temporarily. And the boy and Andres. And Alpha.” He added afterwards: “Please.”
Maximilian and the other men displayed clear apprehension but eventually nodded and moved forward with the transportation.
After ten minutes of struggling, Jericho and the Foxman’s men managed to usher and to carry almost everyone back through the gates in the orphanage. The only people who remained on the edge of the cliff were Simon, Albatross, and Lita. The former two appeared to be trying to coax the latter down.
Head heavy from exhaustion and swirling with thoughts of Maria and Alpha, Jericho approached them in slight confusion.
“—leave me alone, Albatross!” Lita pulled away from both Simon and Albatross with intense ferocity. “You don’t understand. Maria won’t—I—”
Jericho stopped short. He did: he understood what had happened almost immediately. He didn’t know why it had happened, but he understood it.
Jericho stared at Lita for a stretch of time before he quickly approached her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She swung a blind fist at him, but he caught it with his hand. He then moved to lift the conductor hanging from her neck over eyes.
As she looked him over through the glasses, her milky eyes widened. “You’re… the one from before. From Capricorn.” She paled. “I—”
“I am okay. Maria still accepts me as I am.” Jericho wrapped his fingers around her small hand. “You don’t need to give her a reason. She will understand, and she will want to see you. Especially since she is hurt. She fought for you.”
Lita paled even further. “Maria’s hurt…?”
“Yes, but she is strong.” Jericho nodded, convincing himself of this fact with all his might. “So, it’s okay. For you, there is no reason needed. So please come home.”