When Alpha opened his eyes, he knew exactly where he was. He knew everything, after all: the beginning, the middle, the end—although, he admitted that the middle was always fuzzier than the former two parts.
This here was Vega’s private rooms that had served many roles in the past: a laboratory, a meeting office, an experimental place of residence, an archive storage facility, and—now, by the looks of it—a home.
The room’s floor was littered with familiar candles, while the walls were lined with shelves. A record player sat upon a small maroon table in the corner of the room. A series of crudely drawn doodles were strung on string near the ceiling. Across from him on a wooden chair sat Leona whose hands were bound behind her with rope. It seemed like she’d awoken before him. How attentive of her.
Alpha chuckled. “Well, it’s nice seeing you again, Leo. I haven’t seen you since the war.”
Leona’s gaze narrowed. “So you’ve been extending yourself using Epsilon’s ability. How pitiable. Are you a fool?”
Alpha shrugged. “If I am then you must be too for being captured and bound like this with me.” He scanned the room. “The pace that conductors are developing is astounding, isn’t it? At this rate the syzygy that you covet will most definitely happen—maybe sometime around August or July of this coming year? Oh, definitely. I hope what I’ve been doing around the continent hasn’t threatened your timeline any.”
“You’ve made a nuisance of yourself, not a threat,” Leona replied, somehow still sounding refined and elegant despite the fact that she was bound. “What exactly are you trying to achieve by running around Signum plucking children from their homes?”
Alpha shrugged. “It started off as a whim, honestly. It’s not as if I had any premeditation to it. It just sort of… happened.”
“Did it?” Leona challenged, unconvinced. “Or did those children remind you of yourself? Was taking them to spite Theta? Was taking them to spite me?”
Alpha held her gaze. “It’s interesting that it’s the two of us that are in this position, isn’t it? You, someone who didn’t properly go through the baptismal ceremony and someone who didn’t take on enough vitae to truly be considered ‘Leo.’ Me, who took on vitae and the memories associated with them despite technically being unable to. We’re both pseudo-Knowledge Bearers.”
The black-painted door on the wall to his left burst alive a pale tangerine light.
It was a rather ugly color.
Into the room stepped two figures—as Alpha had been expecting. Epsilon and Jericho. Now that Alpha could see Jericho up close, he could see that Jericho certainly had grown to an impressive height. Growth spurts were quite something. While Epsilon looked as if he’d been crying recently, Jericho’s gaze was hard and cold.
“Epsilon…” Leona muttered under her breath as her gaze drifted between the two men. “Jericho. Do you both realize what you’re doing?”
“It’s ‘discretion’, Leona,” Jericho said after a pause. He turned his eyes on Alpha and the cold fire in them intensified. “We will talk about more ‘discretion’ after I speak with him.”
“A-Alpha,” Epsilon stammered, “you—how could you do that to Leo? You… went against everything that you promised me. I’m not going to hold any more vitae for you.”
“You should’ve already realized it, Epsilon,” Alpha said lightly in response. “You haven’t deteriorated that much, have you? Maria hasn’t healed as a saint candidate should. She isn’t Leo.” He jerked his chin towards Leona. “She isn’t Leo either, but she’s certainly closer to Leo than Maria is–from one point of view.”
Epsilon’s gaze drifted momentarily to Leona but he looked away before meeting her eyes. “No, that’s not Leo. I know it isn’t.”
Leona’s face was unreadable.
Jericho approached Alpha, Epsilon trailing behind. Both came to a stop before him.
“You really are tall,” Alpha said with a chuckle once Jericho was right in front of him. “I—”
“You won’t get what you want from him, Jericho,” Leona interjected. “I promise you that. If you look into his eyes, you should be able to tell nothing is there. You can’t get something from someone who has nothing.” After a pause, she continued, her voice becoming steel, “If you continue to act against the ELPIS Department, even I won’t be able to show you this discretion we agreed on—”
“I have to know,” Jericho insisted. “No. I want to understand, but not the reason. Alice says there is no point in finding the reason. I want to know everything else.” He nodded at Epsilon. “Thank you. Ahead of time.”
Epsilon moved forward, placing one conducting glove on Alpha’s temple and the other on Jericho’s.
“Oh, you sad poor thing.” Alpha sighed. “You’re being contradictory, aren’t you? I already answered your questions and you’re still not happy.”
Epsilon’s conductors began to hum with white light and an uncomfortable nostalgia began to burn at Alpha’s temples.
He continued nonetheless: “You and Maria both are still searching for the answer to the beginning, but I’m sorry to say that—”
✧ I ✧
July 30, 1441
Ophiuchus District, Newly United Signum
The first time Proteus lays eyes on the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus he thinks he is dreaming. He is standing at the lip of a cheering crowd as a procession glides down the dirt street. There are thirteen central robed figures in this procession—each separated by about 13 meters from the other. These are the Knowledge Bearers. They are each surrounded by a flock of men and women who drip with elegance and scholarliness. These are the Knowledge Bearer’s Mathités, their disciples, their learners—but also occasionally they serve as their teachers. These individuals are hand-selected by the Knowledge Bearers themselves and were once alumni at the Aesculapium. They are honored and revered and dripping with a different flavor of wisdom compared to the Knowledge Bearers.
As Proteus nears the front of the crowd, he catches a glimpse of a dark-skinned man with an equally dark head of shiny curls at the center of the procession. Proteus has seen paintings of this man being sold at high prices in the marketplace. This is Narci, the Knowledge Bearer of Scorpio.
The man seems to notice Proteus’s attention and offers him a smile and wave. Flushing, Proteus returns it.
Soon the procession reaches the town square—the forum—where the old and aged Orator Promptus Ageptus addresses the crowd while standing on a raised stone platform surrounded by white pillars. The thirteen Knowledge Bearers and the Mathitís make their way up onto the platform as cheers ripple through the crowd.
Moved by all the yipping and hollering, Proteus cheers too. He shouts so loud and claps his hands so hard that he nearly passes out from the fervor of it all. Thankfully, his father has followed him to this point and catches him before he falls back. His father then hoists him onto his shoulders, and so Proteus is able to see the stage clearly.
The crowd silences and Promptus steps forward.
“After nearly over half a century since settling on this continent,” Promptus booms, “we are finally gathering here today to officiate our great United Nation of Signum.” He gestures left and right towards the Knowledge Bearers. “It’s only because of the wisdom given to us by our Knowledge Bearers that we were able to make such fast-paced progress following our exodus to this land. We were once nomads but now we are citizens.”
The Knowledge Bearers step forward and flourish their hands. From their fingertips spark dazzling bursts of light—red, blue, green, and every color in-between.
That is vitae.
This is conducting.
Proteus has heard gossip about it in school, has heard his parents wonder about it at home, has heard it mentioned here and there in the marketplace. Using one’s body to conduct one’s very soul along with the memories that paint them? They have truly embraced the future, shedding the scars of the past behind them—or so Proteus’s parents animatedly discuss during dinner time.
The psychedelic lights continue to speckle the air as everyone looks on in awe. Shimmering water meets pulsating fire. Glimmering air is shattered by rays of golden light. Only one Knowledge Bearer doesn’t add to this colorful light display. Instead, she stands in the middle of their row with her hands clasped over her abdomen. Once the light display ends, she steps forward beside Promptus.
This Knowledge Bearer is different from all the others. While the other twelve are colored in red, blue, green, and every color in-between, this Knowledge Bearer is white. Pure white. Her skin, her hair, her toga. The only trace of color is in her eyes: they are black like the smooth stones Proteus skips with his friends on the nearby lake.
Black. The absence of light.
White. The absence of color.
No. She is not beautiful. Beautiful is too simple and small a term to label the aura that exudes from every pore of her body.
The Knowledge Bearer looks to him in surprise, and Proteus suddenly feels embarrassed for being on his father’s shoulders. Due to the extra height, he is directly in her line of sight. His worries fade away as soon as she offers him a smile.
“We will remember the mistakes of the ones who came before us,” she says, gaze sweeping across the crowd. Her voice is like milk and nectar—smooth and sweet. It’s unlike anything Proteus has ever heard before. “We are descendants but we are also ancestors. We are inheritors but we are also cultivators. That’s how the cycle of the world turns. Everything that is taken is returned. That is the new gate that has been opened up for us due to vitae. Like soft fibers woven together of a parent’s homemade quilt, we are connected by our pasts, feelings, aspirations, futures. This is the era of eternal peace!”
Proteus suddenly feels his heart falter as disappointment settles it. He doesn’t believe her words. He doesn’t believe in eras of eternal peace. All eras end one way or another. And for what reason does he think this? It is because the man whose shoulders he’s sitting on isn’t truly his father. His blood father’s corpse is buried beneath rubble hundreds of kilometers outside of United Signum’s borders.
Yes, Proteus is an orphan from the war torn areas outside of this united country. His real name is not even ‘Proteus.’ It was one given to him three years ago in order to help him integrate better into this country. Yes, three years ago he was taken in as a refugee and given a soft-citizenship in this Ophiuchus District of Signum and then given a new man and woman to call father and mother. He loves them dearly, but he knows they are not like him. They have existed in peace for all of their lives and ‘war’ is almost a foreign term to them—just like it is to every other resident here in this newly founded country.
Just as Proteus is about to request his father to let him down, Ophiuchus suddenly flings her arms out wide. White globules of light spill out from her fingertips and float out towards them. They are pale and translucent, drifting through the air weightless like dandelion puffs. Out of curiosity, Proteus reaches out for one as it drifts towards him. It pops like a bubble as soon as his fingertip touches it, but—
—suddenly Proteus can feel it. Feel her. Feel her joy, her gentleness, her warmth, her wholehearted belief in an era of eternal peace. Images flit by in his mind’s eye. Conversations with old, young, tired, energetic. Pointing and jabbing fingers becoming replaced by firm shaking hands.
Eternal peace is a reality.
Proteus believes it.
‘Proteus’ truly begins here.
Half an hour later, the Knowledge Bearers take audience with the crowd. Proteus tries to direct his father to the front, but they are pushed back by the raving attenders and Proteus’s father eventually leaves to return to work.
By the time Proteus reaches the center of the forum, the thirteen Knowledge Bearers are no longer in sight. Only a few of the Mathitís remain chattering with each other. They are all so tall, sagely, and intimidating that just thinking of approaching them causes butterflies to swarm Proteus’s stomach. The butterflies subside when Proteus spots a female Mathitís sitting alone away from the others on a stone bench pressed up against the stage. Sitting before all the whiteness, she stands out like a sore thumb. Her hair is jet black and long as are her toga. Unlike the other Mathitís, her arms and neck are unexposed to the beating sun. Instead, her toga sport a black lace turtleneck and sleeves that conceal her skin. The gold bands on her wrists and the laurel on her head designate wealth. There is a book in her hands. The pages blinding white in the sun but that doesn’t seem to deter her at all.
Proteus tentatively approaches her. She does not acknowledge his presence even when he stops short a foot away from her. Clearing his throat doesn’t get her attention either.
“E-Excuse me—” he tries.
Finally, the woman turns. “What is it, young man?”
Her eyes are cerulean blue.
It takes a moment for Proteus to find his words. “I—do you know where the Knowledge Bearers went?”
The woman pulls away, disappointment and something akin to disdain etching itself onto her face. She returns to her book and flips a page. “Is it not customary to humbly ask the name of the person you’re requesting information from first?”
Proteus feels his cheeks burn. “Uhm, sorry. What’s your name, miss?”
The woman hums. “You can call me…” She pauses for a moment as if considering. “…Vega.”
Vega. Proteus knows that name. He’s heard whispers about her in the marketplace. Her family is one of the wealthiest in Signum and often does philanthropy work near the borders’ edges.
“What is it? You should speak now if you have a question. If not, I’m certain you’ll have regrets.” After a pause, she adds, “Shame should never come from asking a question as long as a desire to learn is the reason behind it.”
Her words confuse Proteus, and he can’t tell whether or not she’s annoyed by him. Mustering up some courage, he manages, “H-How can I… learn under one of the Knowledge Bearers like you? How do I become a Mathitís?”
Vega looks down at him again, and Proteus can’t help but squirm under her cold gaze. “Learn under a Knowledge Bearer?”
“Uhm…” Proteus mumbles. “I’d like to… study under Ophiuchus…. specifically.”
Proteus opens his mouth then closes it. He doesn’t have a reason.
“Do you not know?” Vega shuts her book and rises to her feet. “You are making a decision to dedicate yourself to something that will consume the better half of your life and you’re unable to grasp the reason.”
“D-Does there need to be a reason?” he half-angrily grumbles to himself.
“There is always a reason,” Vega responds. “Every reaction is caused by a catalyst. Whether or not we need to know that reason as human beings is the question that should be asked.”
Before Proteus can respond, Vega tucks the book under her arm and descends from the platform.
Proteus, cheeks still burning yet filled with renewed determination, chases after her. Just as he hits the ground level, however, he is pulled back by the back of the scruff. Upon craning his neck, he spies the smile of a tall blonde woman with short hair that falls above her ears. She cuts a gallant figure with her broad back and firm arms that are further accented by her tight white and gold toga.
“Don’t mind it too much, young man,” she says. “That’s how most of the Mathitís are.”
It’s Altair. She’s the daughter of one of the very first settlers of Signum. In fact, her father is one of the founders of the District of Ophiuchus that Proteus currently resides in. She’s a current alumna at the Aesculapium and often brings books from the Aesculapium’s grand library to the elementary schools in the heart of the city. She is fun and bright and dazzling and charming.
“They’re all so focused on academics and so serious that they neglect something the common people call ‘socialization.’”
Her words reassure Proteus.
“You’re not one?” He asks curiously. “A Mathitís?”
Altair chuckles. “It’s just not the sort of activity that I think I’d enjoy doing. I’ve never thought once about joining them, to be frank. It just doesn’t fit my character. Learning isn’t something I cast aside. But with the Knowledge Bearers—I feel as if I would be the type to worship them instead of learn from them.”
Altair’s words go over Proteus’s head. He’s only nine, after all.
Altair places a hand on Proteus’s head and gives it a rub. “Well, if you really want to become a Mathitís, just study hard, young man. Oh, and don’t give up if you face any setbacks. Hard work beats everything.”
✧ II ✧
Ophiuchus District, United Signum
Proteus spends the next eleven years studying hard. Mathematics, literature, history, poetry, science, and everything in-between. Vitae theory is all still so nebulous to him. The information changes and contradicts itself every day as new discoveries are made, but Proteus strives regardless. When he reaches the age of 16, he is permitted to enter the Aesculapium.
The Aesculapium is a prestigious academy dedicated to the sole study and research of vitae. It serves as the location where Knowledge Bearer baptismal ceremonies are conducted and is where the first vitae reservoirs in Signum were discovered. History is still fresh about how the thirteen original founders bathed in those pools and received knowledge in exchange for the pain they endured. It’s funny how mythological history sounds.
At the Aesculapium, Proteus quickly befriends a young man named Pothos who has dedicated himself to the study of vitae application and a young woman named Eurydice who has dedicated herself to the study of vitae theory much like Proteus himself. They form a fast friendship due to their similar interest in the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus and since they are the first in their family lineage to attend the Aesculapium. Bonding through their mutual stress over Vega’s theory classes just strengthens their bond.
Personally, Proteus has biases towards individuals who choose to study vitae application instead of vitae theory. They seem so much more brutish and less-deep thinking than his peers that study theory. Pothos is an exception. Pothos is emphatic, energetic, contemplative, and engaging in discussion. He is good company and humorous. Pothos quickly becomes his best friend.
At the age of 19, Proteus finally stands before the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus in the great white selection chamber of the Aesculapium along with Pothos, Eurydice, and a row of his fellow alumni. Despite the chamber being open to the sun beating down above, Proteus can’t help but feel that the white pillars that hold up the open roof feel like bars of a cage. It’s a poor allegory for something he’s been striving forever for, but his nerves are getting to him.
On the raised platform ahead stands Ophiuchus, basking in golden sunlight and looking just as she had all those years ago. In the brightness, she glows white. On her left stands Vega who is dressed in her usual dark garb. To Ophiuchus’s left stands Altair, draped in white and gold.
Yes, despite proclaiming disinterest in it, Altair has indeed become a Mathitís in the time between that past conversation and now. Perhaps that is due to Vega’s influence. Why else would the two throw those gentle glances at each other behind Ophiuchus’s back?
Ophiuchus begins calling up each alumnus down the row one-by-one. She converses with them in what appears to be tense and serious debate on her platform, but they speak so quietly that Proteus can’t even chance to hear them. After speaking with her, each alumnus descends with an unreadable expression before exiting the chamber. Soon it’s Pothos’s turn and Proteus offers him a thumbs as does Eurydice before Pothos ascends. When Pothos descends fifteen minutes later, he wiggles his eyebrows.
Soon, it is Proteus’s turn. He ascends deliberately, carefully, feeling Vega’s, Altair’s, and Ophiuchus’s stares intensify with every step he takes.
Ophiuchus is majestic, he thinks.
Vega places a thoughtful hand to her mouth and glances over at Altair who cocks her head in response.
“Oh, I remember you,” Ophiuchus says as she studies him carefully. “You were at the founding festival.”
“You recognize me?” Proteus feels a sense of jubilation bubble up from his chest and express itself as a smile on his lips.
“Of course.” Ophiuchus chuckles. “I remember everyone. You were that young boy who rode on his foster father’s shoulders, aren’t you?”
Proteus stiffens. “You know—”
“When you connected with me, I also connected with you. Your memories, my memories, your feelings, my feelings—that’s how my conducting presents itself. I do apologize if you found that intrusive.”
“No, it’s… fascinating,” Proteus murmurs in response. A desire to replicate such a form of conducting worms its way into his mind.
Ophiuchus smiles at this. “A curious mind. That’s good. Now, I only connected with you briefly back then, so I don’t really know you. Answer me this kindly then, Proteus: who are you?”
It takes a moment for Proteus to calm his giddiness at such compliments and at such admittance of closeness. When he recovers himself, his cheeks pinken as he realizes he’s been standing in silence for well over half a minute. Nerves jittering, he turns the question ten times over in his head before he answers—
“I’m no one—because I am what everyone perceives me to be. You, who have just met me, have no opinion of me yet despite connecting with me for that short instance. Therefore, Ophiuchus, in your eyes I am nothing. I am no one.”
Ophiuchus hums. “That is certainly a unique answer.”
“As you see fit,” Proteus answers. “I’m a sponge, ready to take in whatever is around me.”
Ophiuchus looks back at Vega.
“A sponge?” Vega presses. “Are you suggesting that the knowledge we offer you is dirty and it needs to be cleaned away? A sponge can only absorb what it is given and can only regurgitate what it’s absorbed. It contributes nothing.”
Proteus feels winded.
Altair winces and gives Vega a look. Vega holds her gaze before she amends—“Or are you highlighting your capacity and willingness to learn?”
“T-The latter. Yes.”
“I suggest to you this first lesson then: think of less loop-hole ridden and cliched allegories and be prepared to defend your ideas from now on.”
And it is so. In the end, Proteus passes Ophiuchus’s and Vega’s judgement and joins Pothos as an official Mathitís to Ophiuchus. So does Eurydice. They celebrate as a trio together at midnight and drink well into the next day.
Their first private lessons with Ophiuchus and other Knowledge Bearers are held in the lavishly furnished Mathitís Hall of the Aesculapium that only the Mathitís can access. Such lessons are unlike any other lesson Proteus has attended before. The Knowledge Bearers speak about vitae from firsthand experience and they answer all questions thoroughly. They challenge ways of thinking and foster curiosity. It is not just a lecture but an experience.
Proteus prefers Ophiuchus’s lessons above all the others. Pothos does too. In fact, Pothos’s devotion to Ophiuchus almost rivals Proteus’s own. Almost. Almost is still enough to stir some unhappiness in Proteus’s chest but he combats it by finding a mutual sense of camaraderie with Pothos in their mutual admiration of Ophiuchus. Proteus also finds camaraderie in the other Mathitís of Ophiuchus—particularly in Bolina and Soteria. They too immigrated into the country at a young age. They too feel the dissonance that Proteus himself occasionally feels.
At Ophiuchus’s side and among the Mathitís, Proteus feels as if he had finally found home where he belongs.
Conversations with Virgo are cerebral, with Scorpio enlightening, with Cancer emotional, with Gemini humorous. Their faces have changed many times over these years that Proteus has served as a Mathitís.
In the beginning, he feels uncomfortable about it:
One moment, he is helping a student through a course on vitae theory and the next that very same student is a Knowledge Bearer helping him through a formula relating vitae wavelength to velocity and energy. After performing some baptismal ceremonies himself at the heart of the Ophiuchus district, however, Proteus becomes somewhat accustomed to it—although it unnerves him still despite the vigor and enthusiasm all potential Knowledge Bearers display before going through the ceremony.
The selection process remains quite mysterious to Proteus and involves one-on-one consultation of the potential Knowledge Bearer with other Knowledge Bearers and sometimes even the Knowledge Bearer they are to take the role from. Whenever Proteus has asked Vega about it, she merely tells him the information will be disseminated to him with time. Patience, she always says.
The only Knowledge Bearer who does not change face over the years is Ophiuchus’s. Proteus frequents her often as one of her Mathitís. He attends all of her private lectures and even the public ones for the general alumni at the Aesculapium. She speaks profoundly and doesn’t look down on anyone as she teaches. She smiles at everyone fairly and answers all questions no matter how simple. She is a bright light that draws all eyes. Proteus thinks that she shines even brighter than Leo despite all of Leo’s gallantry and charisma.
Proteus has one-on-one sessions with Ophiuchus every week. They discuss the origins of vitae particles, the natural cycle and energy levels vitae particles go through, the Ceremony of the Return in which individuals who are near death visit vitae reservoirs to offer themselves to resupply it, as well as politics and philosophy which surprisingly go hand-in-hand. Sometimes when Proteus is close enough to her to see the ebony of her eyes, he can’t help but think he sees loneliness there.
One day while they are discussing the concept of enlightenment, freedom, and inner peace, Proteus suggests the idea that a longer life leads to more attachments combating the wisdom a longer life tends to bestow. It’s a half-formulated concept that he’s been considering for a little over a month, but he still feels comfortable enough divulging to Ophiuchus his scattered thoughts.
Ophiuchus considers his point before she responds with a question of her own: “Are you saying that I’m the least peaceful out of all the other Knowledge Bearers since I’ve been ‘here’ the longest?”
Proteus backpedals immediately but Ophiuchus merely chuckles good-naturedly in response.
“That’s an interesting perspective,” she says, still smiling. “You shouldn’t be ashamed to have a perspective as long as you’re able to explain and support it with facts. In fact, I think you in particular can offer a particularly unique perspective, Proteus. I would like to hear more from you on that.”
“A unique perspective?”
“Yes, from your childhood years outside of United Signum.” Ophiuchus adds gently, “If you feel comfortable, of course.”
Proteus doesn’t like to talk much about his past before being brought into Signum—not even to Pothos, not even to Eurydice. But Ophiuchus feels just slightly different.
“Aren’t you and the other Knowledge Bearers the same?” he tries after a while. “You have… also lived outside of this peaceful land.”
Ophiuchus’s smile thins. “That does make one wonder, doesn’t it? That is: how we’re able to bring in a peaceful era despite not truly understanding what peace is and having never lived in peace before. I’ve had lengthy discussions with Vega about this.”
There is a pang in Proteus’s chest at the latter revelation. Ophiuchus seems to somehow read his thoughts because she reaches across the table to hold his hand.
“Each one of you is special to me, Proteus,” Ophiuchus says, placing a finger to her lips. A secret. “Our ultimate goal is peace, freedom, and tranquility. While we teach that the pursuit of knowledge is a way to live by, we still uphold lack of attachment as the key to internal peace and true enlightenment since everything returns to the cycle. Passions can drive a person mad, after all. Even so, I’m still human in the end.”
Proteus understands what she’s implying. Although the admittance warms his chest, with it comes a general feeling of uneasiness. Above the uneasiness, however, is a sense of pride—pride that Ophiuchus trusted him with this information.
“I… thank you, Ophiuchus, for telling me this,” Proteus says. After some time, he returns to the previous conversation: “Attachments… One could argue that having a name is a form of attachment. Therefore, is it that potential Knowledge Bearers abandon their name to limit that number of attachments? And for the current names you bear… do you believe that is a form of attachment? Since you’ve held onto it for so long?”
“Well, conversing with a large group without having a name is quite difficult, so the usefulness of names overrides what you consider an ‘attachment,’” Ophiuchus muses after some thought. “Actually… the names that you call us and the names you’ve named the thirteen districts are not our actual true names. We selected those names for ourselves after we became the first Knowledge Bearers.” She presses a finger to her lips again. Another secret. “My true name is actually Pandora.”
“P-Pandora…” Proteus turns, heart pounding. “But… Where did you get the names Ophiuchus, Scorpio, Leo, Libra form?”
“Names are always derived from the past, aren’t they?” Ophiuchus doesn’t elaborate further and merely says, “This is our secret, alright?”
Secret. Trust. Proteus is honored.
Over the years, their relationship grows stronger and stronger. Proteus remains wholly dedicated to Ophiuchus, while some of the other Mathitís gradually find their dedication split between each other, their research, and other outside responsibilities. Proteus’s relationship with Ophiuchus is incomparable to any other—he knows. He understands her, and she understands him.
Aesculapium, Ophiuchus District, United Signum
“Is it not cruel?” Proteus wonders.
Vega looks up at him from across the Itero Recino board game table. They have just retired from presenting a dual lecture for the younger students at the Aesculapium. The materials for the past few lectures were quite trivial, so Proteus began weaving little riddles into lectures. Vega caught on quickly and began weaving them into hers. For the past twenty lectures, they’ve been sending each other riddles interwoven within their lessons.
Vega has warmed a little since Proteus first laid eyes on her during that founding festival two decades ago. Proteus has found it easier to talk to her in recent years and often confides in her things he does not wish to confide in Pothos, Eurydice, or even Ophiuchus–though he feels guilty for the latter bit. She always listens much like Ophiuchus does, and perhaps this is a skill she has developed due to her recent interests. Vega has developed an apparent fondness for children, going so far as to teach in rural regions near the borders of the country. Proteus wonders if this is due to Altair’s influence. He’s not quite sure how he feels about their relationship.
Vega’s brilliant, after all. Over these handful of years, she has proved the theory of the linked spatial factor shared between vitae particles. Her research has now shifted to the application of such theories.
Vega is also one of the handful of Mathitís who worked on developing the mechanical conductor able to mimic the way the Knowledge Bearers conduct their vitae through tapping into the vitae within the bloodstream. It has not become mainstream yet, but it shows promise. Alternative forms of conducting have been suggested in recent years but Vega doesn’t look upon them fondly because she is old-fashioned. There is an ‘intimacy’—or so she says—with conducting that needs to be respected since it is utilizing memories and soul.
In recent years, however, she has become less and less focused on her research and more focused on teaching those children on the outskirts and—more focused on Altair.
“When Knowledge Bearers are chosen, they generally serve for only a handful of years or even a handful of months,” Proteus says, moving the black piece marked with ‘α’ over the white piece marked ‘θ’. He palms the latter piece with a frown. “After that, they return themselves to the vitae reservoirs… The only exception to that has been Ophiuchus. Would you not say that that’s cruel? For such young individuals to inherit such a taxing and short-lived task?”
“When one becomes a Knowledge Bearer, one quite literally becomes a lexicon of information,” Vega replies. “One that is given consciousness. That’s quite a dangerous state of being.” She looks across the library terrace towards the open window where Proteus can see Altair enjoying the sunlight. “A change in perspective is also a necessity. That’s what the District Elects believe. The only exception is Ophiuchus.”
For now, Proteus thinks with worry.
“That is due to the fact that her role is somewhat different from the others.…. but I do believe I understand your perspective.” She puts a hand to her mouth as her other drifts across the board. “It’s quite a burden to place on the coming generation. One could argue that at least they’re taking on that burden for their current and future generations, but still…”
Proteus studies her.
“An alternative means should be found, yes. What we’re operating on is tradition—however young it may be.” She eats two of his pieces. Then three. “I’ve taught many who have grown to become Knowledge Bearers, and I have been taught by them in turn. The cyclic process is also tradition… Whether to become attached to tradition or not…”
“Attached? I’ve discussed that topic with Ophiuchus recently.” Proteus watches Vega’s face to see if there are any hints of jealousy there. He quickly divulges some of the contents of his most recent conversation with her.
Vega only shows mild interest. “I see. That must have been an interesting conversation. The path to enlightenment is not far from the path of passion. They are connected through the bridges of attachment and obsession. Only freedom can sever that connection. Or so Sagittarius once said.”
Vega finishes maneuvering her pieces on the board. Unsurprisingly, only white pieces remain. Proteus has lost.
✧ III ✧
Something in the universe changes. It’s as if a switch has been flipped: an instantaneous reaction. The world blackens.
Proteus doesn’t notice it himself at first. He is too busy basking in the light that is Ophiuchus’s presence and enjoying his position, studies, colleagues, and research at the Aesculapium to detect any sort of wrongness. The darkness reaches his eyes one day when he is perusing the Aesculapium’s white marble library with Mnemosyne.
Mnemosyne is a bit of an oddball. She is a Mathitís for the Knowledge Bearer of Ophiuchus, but seems more like she is one for Leo. Frankly speaking, she acts more like a fevered fan than a learner or a teacher. She adores Leo and almost seems to worship the ground he walks on. The love and adoration is fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—returned in kind. It’s not difficult to discern that Leo dotes on her even more than his own Mathitís. The history there is unknown to Proteus but he isn’t curious enough to pry. Regardless of this, he respects Mnemosyne for the progress she has made in quantifying the relationship between the vitae particle and memory. She has even managed to consolidate the theory into a form of conducting.
Proteus is discussing the potential ramifications Mnemosyne’s discovery will have on Knowledge Bearers when Altair and Vega storm into the library. They do not head to the glass bookshelves that line the pristine walls nor do they move to the central marble table where weekly debates are held. No, instead they head straight to Leo and Scorpio who are conversing out on the balcony in the evening light. Both Leo and Scorpio turn to the approaching two in surprise and offer greeting smiles. This warm gesture is not returned by either Altair and Vega.
“Explain yourselves,” Altair demands through gritted teeth as she shoves a stack of papers into Leo’s chest. “What is this?”
“What are you doing to the children in the Virgo region?” Vega presses. Her countenance is calm, but the brooding storm in her eyes bleeds out into the rest of the library. Out of respect, some of the alumni who are perusing the shelves quickly exit the chamber.
Mnemosyne, on the other hand, stiffens and then blazes over to Leo’s side. Leo holds up a hand, stopping her short at the threshold of the balcony. Proteus, curious and somewhat afraid, joins her. By the time he nears, the papers that were shoved into Scorpio’s hands are scattered in disarray on the floor.
“No, no, no.” Scorpio shakes his head as his hand sweeps wide. “Virgo would never do something like this. Your presumptions are—”
Leo moves forward and picks the papers from the ground. He scans them, gaze darkening “What is this…?”
Altair visibly bristles. “Don’t act ignoran—”
Vega places a hand on Altair’s shoulder. “Would you mind elaborating, Leo?”
Leo looks at her sharply, a frown pressing down his lips. “Why would you think I would be involved in something like this? You think that lowly of me, no?”
“The high opinions we hold of the Knowledge Bearers have been proven incorrect rather recently,” Vega replies evenly, “so forgive us if we are presumptuous.” She slowly points to the paper in Leo’s hands. “Both Virgo and Pisces are clearly implicated in this. It would be irresponsible of us not to consider the others.”
Leo’s frown deepens. “You have confronted others about this, yes?”
“Ophiuchus,” Altair replies. “We went to her before we came to you. She was aghast—”
“No,” Scorpio repeats defiantly. He sweeps out of the balcony into the library and heads to the exit. “I don’t believe it–”
“Where are you going?” Leo calls after him.
“I’ll confront Virgo myself about this,” Scorpio replies without stopping. “There has to be some sort of mistake—a misunderstanding.”
“Don’t be reckless, yes? Be strong. Be smart,” Leo says, warns Scorpio, before turning and finally beckoning Mnemosyne near.
“What’s going on…?” she asks tentatively.
After consulting with Leo and Vega privately, Altair tells Proteus and Mnemosyne everything and it horrifies Proteus. Vitae is being harvested—not from the reservoirs but from humans. From children. The immigrant orphans that live at the border’s edge. And why? Because certain districts have begun to experience a drought of reservoirs. The people demand more. Then—there is this talk about this so-called ‘syzygy.’
The lack of patience, empathy, and care is astounding. The lack of proper education and humane solution is revolting. They are a civilized nation but they still resort to something like this? Proteus is certain that if reservoir conservation policy and appropriate distribution measures are put into place, this issue could be easily resolved. It will just take time. It’s almost unbelievable that anyone would think of a solution like this instead.
At the same time, however, Proteus is not surprised.
The world blackens further.
The Knowledge Bearers hold council in the Mathitís hall a week or two later. By this time, word has spread to all the Mathitís; and they gather together to watch the outcome of the discussion. Pothos and Eurydice who flank Proteus’s left and right from where he stands behind Ophiuchus’s stolen chair are both disgusted.
It is evident that the Knowledge Bearers are divided into three factions: those who are against, those who are for, and those who hold neutral ground. How one can be apathetic and hold neutral ground in this situation astounds Proteus.
“The people demand more reservoirs,” Scorpio says, breaking the silence first. “It’s not as if they won’t eventually become part of the reservoirs eventually. Why not meet the demands of our people while simultaneously moving forward with the syzygy?”
Something has changed in that single week since Scorpio has allegedly confronted Virgo. It unnerves Proteus. He doesn’t recognize Scorpio anymore. He wants to ask what happened but he knows knowing will do nothing.
“The syzygy,” Capricorn repeats with disdain. “Is that what you’re calling this reprehensible plan of yours?”
“It’s not so much a plan,” Scorpio responds, “as a sequential series of events. A chain reaction started by a catalyst long ago. It’s inevitable—”
“You’re a fool, Scorpio.” Leo’s eyes narrow. “Do you hear yourself?”
“The people have made this decision,” Pisces replies, folding his hands together and smiling pleasantly. “Our purpose is to aid our people and that’s what we’re doing.”
“Your people,” Taurus replies evenly. “Not ours.”
“It’s not even the people…” Cancer mumbles. “It’s the District Leaders…”
Scorpio smiles sympathetically and extends a hand. “You don’t understand now, but you will. This is fact.”
Gemini lifts her head, eyes widening as if in realization. “You idiot. You tried to use your vitae on Virgo, didn’t you…? That’s why—”
“So the plan is to decimate a quarter of the people to supply the people, no? And then what afterwards?” Leo interjects, amber eyes burning bright. “Why would you even suggest that route to them? Have you no pride? And this—this syzygy… Disgusting!”
Leo rises to a stand and swings out his hand. A ribbon of gold spills out from his palm and spindles into six blades that hover in the air. Without hesitation, he flings his hand out and the blades hurtle across the table towards Scorpio who continues smiling pleasantly. Before the blades reach him, a burst of crimson flame erupts over the table and the blades of vitae are disintegrated in an instant.
Proteus immediately thinks of his childhood as memories of mortar shells, gunfire, and the rumble of detonators flood his mind. The gasps that fill the room barely reach his ears as his mind reels. He is only brought back to reality by Ophiuchus’s voice—
“Stop this at once!”
Ophiuchus captures the attention of the room almost immediately. As the smoke in the room clears, guided by Sagittarius’s tense and waving hand, Ophiuchus rises to a stand. Her gaze sweeps the room and she looks at all of them sympathetically, warmly.
“We cannot fight like this. Arguments should be settled not with fists but with words—no, with understanding, compromise, and patience. What sort of examples are we setting by using our fists instead of our heads?” she asks, before folding her hands together. She gazes across the table towards Pisces and Scorpio. “I have a proposal that may satisfy all parties.”
“Oh?” Pisces reflects her smile back. “And what is that?”
“I suggest that… you have a little bit more faith in our people,” Ophiuchus says. “You’re pushing for vitae harvesting and this syzygy and claim it is for them. As Knowledge Bearers, our purpose is indeed to offer a guiding hand to our people, but perhaps we have grown too involved and attached.” She gestures to opposite ends of the table. “We should not be actively deciding the fates of our people. I think this development makes that clear regardless of where you stand. I suggest we take a more hands-off approach from now on. I repeat: we should have faith in our people. If their path leads them to this ‘syzygy’ as you call it then so be it, but if not, then why should we push for it?
“That’s ridiculous, Ophiuchus. You know it.” Scorpio stares at her with sympathy. “It’s just delaying what is already meant to be.”
Ophiuchus responds only by reflecting his sympathetic look.
“The only person who benefits from this sort of agreement is you, Ophiuchus,” Libra interjects calmly. She has remained so quiet the entire time that Proteus has almost forgotten her presence. “You are asking without giving in return.”
Leo bristles. “And this is you taking a neutral stance, yes?”
“I am being neutral. I’m stating as I see fit and fair,” Libra responds calmly. “The opposing party will not be satisfied with this. This ‘syzygy’ that they believe is the key to peace—”
“Key to peace,” Capricorn scoffs.
“—is pushed back by your deal proposal so they must pay with time,” Libra continues. “The challenging party receives only benefits and loses nothing.” She extends a hand out to Ophiuchus’s and Leo’s direction. “I suggest you offer an equivalent wager.”
Ophiuchus takes a long and sweeping of the hall before she lets out a breath and gestures to chest. “I wager myself.”
Proteus doesn’t understand what she’s implying.
“I have not gone through a baptismal ceremony since taking my role here,” she says. “And I will not go through any from now on. Our bodies are held together by the vitae particles inside of us, but we still face the ravages of time. Since they must wait during this deal, I will do the same to extremity.”
Libra frowns. “Ophiuchus… I care for you and respect you, but do you think your stagnation is enough?”
Ophiuchus’s gaze does not falter. “It’s up to the opposing party to accept this proposal, isn’t it?”
Scorpio exchanges a look with Pisces, before Scorpio smirks and Pisces offers a calm nod.
Proteus world cracks in two.
Proteus gets on his knees, crawls along the floor, and grovels at Ophiuchus’s legs. All of Ophiuchus’s other 23 Mathités that ring her look down at him in surprise, pity, disappointment. Pothos is among them and moves forward to try to bring Proteus back up to his feet, but Proteus pushes him aside.
“Please, Ophiuchus!” he pleads. “You have to see how foolish this deal is! The ones who benefit from it are the ones who want the syzygy to happen! You know what people are like, Ophiuchus. You know! It’s all for naught!”
“Proteus,” Vega warns. “Respect Ophiuchus’s choice.”
“You’ve lived long enough to know that I’m right, Ophiuchus!” Proteus continues, before whipping towards Vega. “Vega, you’ve seen how it is near the outskirts, haven’t you? You’ve seen what those children have gone through before they’ve come into our borders. It’s no use!”
Vega seems to consider his words. Proteus reaches for her, but Altair pulls her away while casting a sympathetic look in Proteus’s direction.
“Proteus, please have some faith in your fellow humans,” Ophiuchus says gently as she falls into a crouch in front of him so they are eye-level. “Please have a little bit of hope.”
Proteus grabs onto her hand. “I was no one before I met you, Ophiuchus—”
Ophiuchus’s face folds and she pulls away. “I see I have taught you incorrectly, Proteus. I’m sorry for that–”
“Why can’t you see? Why can’t you see?!” Proteus cries, scrambling to his feet and stumbling towards her. Before he can reach for her hand again, the other Mathitís pull him back. “How can you all just sit by and let this be? She’s our teacher! She’s given us everything we know!”
“Proteus! Stop it!”
“That’s enough, Proteus…”
Proteus stares at them all in disbelief.
Why can’t they see it…?
It is then that Proteus shakily raises his hand to his left eye, digs his fingers into his eye-socket, and—squelch! Someone screams. Proteus ignores them and fixates his remaining good eye on Ophiuchus as she turns to him in confusion. Her hand flies to her mouth as he shrugs himself forward out of the ones who hold him. He offers her his eye.
“If you can’t see it with your own eye, then look through mine! Connect with me! You have to see!” Proteus pleads. He stumbles towards her again, but his legs buckle beneath him as blood loss settles in.
Ophiuchus’s voice echoes in his ears—“Please get him to a medical…”
As his vision dims, the last thing he sees is her retreating back.
The next year Proteus and Ophiuchus’s Mathitís as well as other Mathitís press the limits of their research capabilities away from the eyes of the other Knowledge Bearers. In the end, they postulate a number of steps they can take to mitigate this ‘syzygy.’ These measures are arguably unethical, but it is their best option. It’s not as if the pro-syzygy Knowledge Bearers are doing any better, after all.
Their first countermeasure is bleaching vitae. It brings vitae to such a lower energy level that they hypothesize it is unable to return to the cycle. The older Mathitís find this method reprehensible since it disrupts the natural cyclic nature of vitae. It’s no better than what Pisces and Virgo did, they say. It’s simply doing it in the opposite direction.
Second, there is the practice of actively siphoning away vitae from the vitae reservoirs. It is the younger Mathitís that object to this idea. It’s retroactive, they say. It’ll just make the common people and the District Leaders more desperate for vitae.
Their reluctance irritates Proteus. He wishes they would just let go of their hesitation. If they would just let go of it, then they would be able to achieve anything. But Ophiuchus has always taught patience and understanding, so Proteus keeps his feelings to himself. Throughout the entire ordeal, no one mentions his missing eye, but he occasionally gets curious looks, disdainful looks, admiring looks.
This inconvenience aside, even in light of their discoveries, the world continues to spin against them.
Sagittarius who has remained neutral is rumored to have switched their stance to pro-syzygy. Gemini as well. Proteus doesn’t know what has caused the change in tide but he suspects it will soon reach the other Knowledge Bearers.
September 1, 1491
Proteus does not attend the day the pact is meant to be sealed. He hears about it despite not wanting to. Eurydice describes it in great detail between weeping tears:
In a dark chamber where light did not touch, Libra met with Ophiuchus. Under Leo’s and Pisces’s gazes, Libra reiterated the points of their deal—the free will clause on both parties, non-interference, and the observer resolution. After that, Libra drove her vitae straight through Ophiuchus’s chest, effectively paralyzing her and her vitae. Ophiuchus—still conscious—was subsequently laid down to rest on a stone table that would serve as her bed for an unknowable amount of time to come.
An hour or so after Proteus learns of this, a public announcement carries through the Ophiuchus District by paper and word-of-mouth: The United Signum is united no more. Each district has laid claim to its own independence and has become a fully functional state.
Eternal united peace?
“You should have been there,” Pothos says bitterly when he finds Proteus later that evening. “Ophiuchus would’ve wanted you to be there.”
Proteus tries to ignore him.
“She’s going to spend who knows how long trapped in that chamber,” Pothos continues. “Think of how lonely she’ll be when we’re gone.”
Ophiuchus’s loneliness—Proteus feels guilty for not considering it, but he still is angry that she clings so tightly to her belief despite knowing better. Is he disappointed? No. Just sad. The thought of her potential century-long loneliness is enough to swallow bitter feelings. He has to do something, he knows. He needs to do something for her before he is gone. But if offering his eye to her is not enough, then what…?
The world continues to turn. In what direction? Proteus does not know. The leaders of each of the decade-old states have decided to relabel the Knowledge Bearers as Saint Candidates. There is irony behind the meanings of the differing titles that does not escape Proteus.
An idea sparks inside Proteus’s mind a couple decades after Ophiuchus is sealed: a way to stay by Ophiuchus’s side, a way to mitigate her loneliness, a way to help her. He thinks of it after spying Mnemosyne wandering by Leo’s side in the Aesculapium’s halls during one of Leo’s covert visits.
Proteus locates Vega in the library at the dead of night not soon after. He spills to her his ideas, his dreams, his plans, his hopes.
“We need to resist,” Proteus insists. “We don’t know if the Knowledge Bearers will uphold their end of the bargain, so we must–”
“Resist?” Vega frowns. “By making us resistant to the turn of the cycle? By resisting Ophiuchus’s wishes and sacrifice?”
A gloominess has shrouded the woman’s face in the past year and an invisible deep sadness seems to weep out from every pore in her body.
“We have to,” Proteus insists. “We have to actively try to stop the syzygy from happening. We cannot blindly put our faith and hope in the future generations! Shouldn’t we take that burden from the children coming on after us?”
His pleas do not reach her.
“I will follow along with Ophiuchus’s request,” Vega says. “Proteus… I suggest you do the same. Out of respect. Out of a sense of responsibility.”
Proteus is devastated by Vega’s answer. He needs her brilliance to move this plan of his forward. He needs her reputation to draw more people towards his ideals, but now—
Suddenly, Proteus thinks of Altair. He knows that Altair is the one who followed Vega to become a Mathitís, but he also knows following is not a one-way route. And so he begins to whisper into Altair’s ear. He appeals to the woman’s knightly nature, to her desire to serve, to her sense of justice, to her sense of righteousness. He drops the seeds of his ideas here and there and waits for them to take root.
It only takes two weeks. The bitterness in Altair’s heart takes hold, and she finally realizes that standing idle is insufficient. She agrees to his proposition. When Vega learns of this, there is expected conflict. Proteus overhears snippets of the duo’s late night argument in the libraries from where he hides out of sight behind a bookcase.
“Darling,” Altair says, “I won’t be able to live with myself if I die and return to the cycle without having done anything to try and stop this madness. I cannot allow Ophiuchus’s sacrifice to be in vain—”
“You won’t be able to return to the cycle at all,” Vega returns, “if you go through with what Proteus has laid out. It’s wrong, Altair. You know it. Ophiuchus would not approve of it.”
Altair moves to hold Vega’s face in her left palm. “Darling, I want to make sure there is a Signum for your vitae to return to every time your cycle is turned. I want to make sure the cycle is still present for those who come after us.” She traces Vega’s cheekbone and wrinkles with her thumb. “I will not go immediately and will remain here as long as possible, darling, so you won’t miss me much. I promise.”
When Vega doesn’t respond, Altair pulls away. She is prevented from fully retreating, however, by Vega’s hand which wraps around her wrist.
“You’re a ridiculous person.” Vega sighs, pulling Altair back gently towards her. “Why would you think I would not follow you if you chose this path?” She carefully cups Altair’s hand in her own. “You will always be my precious magpie. Wherever you fly, I will follow—just for the chance that you will alight in my palm so I may hold you as long as possible.”
A kiss seals their fate.
Proteus feels relief.
With both Vega and Altair on board, it does not take long for the other Mathitís to follow. The younger follow in the footsteps left by the elder no matter the time and place.
Nearly a decade later, the development of the resistor reaches completion. Those Mathitís who still remain gather at Proteus’s beckoning in the Mathitís Hall of the aged Aesculapium. Despite the passage of time, the marbled walls remain pristine and the pillars that uphold the stone roof still stand pure white. It is a sign of reassurance or perhaps an attachment. Either way, it is an anchor.
This will be their final forum discussion before they bleach their vitae, and Proteus addresses their final concerns, worries, hesitations to the best of his ability.
“We’ll be the enduring hope in the resistance against the syzygy,” Proteus says in his closing lines. “We will be Ophiuchus’s”—Pandora’s, he thinks— “ELPIS.”
Everyone solemnly nods as silence falls.
“It’s still damned unnatural,” Themis, a Mathitís of Libra, spits and breaks the silence first. She has been brought in through her association with Pothos, Vega, and Altair. “I understand that and I bitterly admit that Libra made an incorrect judgment, but…” She gestures to her chest. “Removing ourselves from the cycle? Is it ethical? Have we filled out all the proper paperwork? Brought it to the review board? No! Because we’re doing it under the damned table and breaking a contract!”
“If you don’t like it…” Bolina sighs. “… then why are you here, Themis?” She glances over to another middle-aged woman beside her. “And you Hatsya? You’re a Mathitís for Scorpio, aren’t you? You used to be so flirtatious with him, and you see how he is now. How can we trust you?”
Hatsya clicks her tongue in annoyance. “I still know what’s right and what’s wrong outside of my personal relationships. Check yourself before you go judging others.”
“Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I won’t go through with it,” Themis agrees. “As Hatsya said, I know what’s right and just.”
The whispers of disagreement begin to blossom around them.
Vega silences it all with one sweeping look. “We will need to keep records. This is how we shall combat the stagnation bleached vitae brings. We will need to be our own bearers of knowledge. If not, we will not learn what works and what doesn’t. We won’t grow from our mistakes,” she says. “I suggest we store such records in the laboratory Altair carved out for me 20 or 30 years ago. We can use those rooms as an operating base as well.”
“We should lay some ground rules in place now and let any objections and discussion on the path ahead be displayed out now,” Altair adds. “Having these discussions after the fact is kind of pointless.”
Vega nods. “I will start notating now. This will be our first record.”
“We won’t be ourselves anymore after this, right, Vega?” someone murmurs. “Not really.”
Vega nods quietly.
Morose silence again falls over them all.
Proteus can see reluctance mounting but it never reaches full fruition. He then suggests after some more silence–“Then we should abandon the names we currently have. It’ll be a sign of our choice and our removal from the cycle.” He placed a hand to his chest. “We end here.”
“We die here,” Vega agrees. “That being said, if you would like to approach this matter poetically like so, what names would you suggest we take on, Proteus?”
Proteus thinks for a moment as he regards Vega and then recalls the numerous rounds of Itero Recino they’ve played over the years. He swiftly counts the heads in the hall before he offers his suggestion.
“Ah, how childish,” Vega says in response, tone fond.
“Since you started it, you should be Alpha, Proteus,” Eurydice offers in a clear attempt to warm the mood. “I’ll be Beta.”
Pothos steps forward, gesturing to himself. “I’ll be Gamma—”
“Wait a damn minute!” Themis bristles. “How come you get to choose your names first? Where’s the fairness in that!” She pauses to hack a cough. “I say we draw—”
Foreign footfalls cut Themis off short. Proteus and the others turn towards the threshold entrance where a woman with golden curls and amber eyes stands. It is Leo, now wearing a different face.
“Please do continue, yes?” she says. “Oh. I apologize if my entrance has… distracted you.”
“Leo!” Mnemosyne greets the Knowledge Bearer with pure enthusiasm. “You made it!”
Mnemosyne is given tense looks of disapproval.
“What are you doing here, Leo?” someone asks, tense, distrustful.
“I’ll assist you in your efforts, yes? Mnemosyne has told me everything,” Leo replies calmly, walking forward and standing at the center of their gathering. “I cannot stand the idea of going back on everything that we’ve built, no? It is pure nonsense.”
Some glance at Vega, others at Proteus himself.
“You’ve known me all of your lives, and I’ve known you all of mine.” Leo’s gaze sweeps over them all. “You’ve seen where I stand on this situation, yes? Just as you cannot let this be, neither can I.”
Proteus regards Leo. Leo was one of the few Knowledge Bearers to stand by Ophiuchus’s side in the previous decade. Leo is trustworthy. Vega seems to agree because she offers a nod of approval.
“To assist you best, I will pretend to side with Scorpio, Pisces, and the others for now. I dislike doing dishonorable things like going against deals, but in this case I must, no? Discreetly.” Leo looks them over again. “And how will you handle your own discreteness? The others will realize what you are doing soon.” A sympathetic look passes over her gaze. “You are sure of your choice?”
“We’re as certain as you are,” Altair says.
“We’ll apply the observer clause in this case,” Vega answers the first question evenly, “when this comes to the attention of the other Knowledge Bearers… To stay by Ophiuchus’s side and ensure the other party upholds their end up the deal—this will be our explanation. Will that be sufficient in your eyes…?”
Leo inclines her head. “I know the path ahead seems impossible, but I will tell you this. Impossible is something to be conquered by the strong. I admire your bravery.”
They finally enter Ophiuchus’s chamber a week before it is to be done. Ophiuchus has aged slightly in the past decade and has become noticeably thinner. Pothos kneels at her side and holds her hand, while Vega holds her gaze gloomily.
Proteus tells Ophiuchus what is to be done. Ophiuchus, who can no longer truly speak, merely holds his gaze. He cannot decipher her expression. Perhaps if he had both of his eyes he would be able to.
As the time nears, fear stirs Proteus’s heart, but it is not fear for himself or for the others. It is fear that Ophiuchus will still be alone. They will forget with each initiation, but she won’t. He does not want to forget any moments he experiences with Ophiuchus from this point on either. He wants to record everything that their written records fail to capture. This will be key in their resistance effort, he convinces himself. And so he takes Mnemosyne aside and makes a request.
“With the help of your conducting, I’ll become a pseudo-Knowledge Bearer,” he reasons, trying to reassure both himself and her. “I know the others will object to this, so this should stay just between us—”
“A pseudo-Knowledge Bearer?” the woman mutters fretfully, biting her nails. “That’s… not right. You know it’s not.”
Unable to suppress his frustration, he takes a hold of her sides and shakes her hard. “Leo is sacrificing his entire life to help us. Do you want him to be alone in all of that? We’ll forget, but he won’t! Ophiuchus won’t!”
Mnemosyne crumples under his words. Her affection for and attachment to Leo is strong. So, a day later, the two of them select a trusted alumnus at the Aesculapium named Julius to be the donor of vitae and memory for the coming years. Julius thus becomes the first true non-resistored ELPIS member. Proteus knows there will be many more to come until this cold war they have with the pro-syzygy Knowledge Bearers ends.
Proteus goes through the vitae bleaching ceremony first. Vega and Mnemosyne are the ones who apply the procedure. As he lays down on the stone slab table in Vega’s exitless room, he stares up at the ceiling and thinks over his entire life: from the time he was hiding from bullets and bombs outside of Signum to him being taken into his foster parents’ care to him basking in Ophiuchus’s light for the first time to attending and giving lectures with his fellow Mathitís at the Aesculapium.
Ophiuchus has always been his beginning. He hopes that she will be his end as well. Despite all of his reservations about the choice Ophiuchus has made, now that he really thinks about it, he still believes in her version of eternal peace.
Peace. Hope. Love.
Yes, those are ‘right’ things and they are in the right.
The searing hot pain that scorches through his vein marks the turning point.
Proteus ends here.
Alpha begins here.
Twin Cities, Gemini
Francis Foxman carefully wove his way through the damp streets he’d known since childhood. His gates had covered almost every meter of the city near the end of last fall, but many had been scrubbed away by the ELPIS Department in the weeks following that. He managed to set up a handful of supplementary gates around the east and west corridors in the past few months, but it was exceedingly difficult to do so without drawing the attention of Scorpio’s spores. This especially held true regarding areas surrounding Romano and Foxman footholds. At the moment, however, encroaching on this territory was a necessary risk.
“I bet they don’t even pay their damned taxes.”
Francis glanced to his right at Tau who paced beside him. Tau had always been stringent about law, justice, legal agreements, order—perhaps too much so. But this was exactly why Francis had brought the man with him. Without Tau’s assistance, Francis doubted he would be able to achieve the goal he currently had in mind. Perhaps, in the past he may have been able to, but not as his current self.
As he rounded a street corner of one of the wealthier districts on the outskirts of the city, he observed the large mansions that were spaced far and wide from each other behind the gates at his left. Such signs of wealth when compared to the poverty at the heart of the city highlighted the disparities that came with the modern age. It was troubling.
After wandering around somewhat lost for the better part of half an hour, Francis and Tau were approached by two suited men holding an umbrella. Francis reached for Allen’s pistol at his belt in response but felt rather foolish for such a violent action when he came to recognize the two men. They were Romano men. Verano and Lidio—if Francis recalled correctly.
The two stared at the right side of his face for a while before they exchanged looks and Verano said, “The boss has been expecting you for the past couple of hours. He sent us out to look for you when you didn’t show…”
So Ricardo was already aware of his discovery.
Tau frowned. “Expecting us? The gall!”
“I see,” Francis said. “I would appreciate it if you took me to Mr. Ricardo’s residence then. I can’t seem to remember where he lives.”
After exchanging another look with Verano, Lidio nodded and held out the umbrella over Francis’s and Tau’s head. Francis finally realized it was raining.
* * *
Francis and Tau were brought into a large, maroon manor at the very edge of the city. The gold gated bars that caged it in swung open for them as they approached. Upon entering the lavish house, Francis’s suit-jacket was taken from him and he was handed a towel to dry himself with. Tau received the same treatment.
Afterwards, Verano and Lidio led them up a tall, red-carpet staircase and to the familiar oak doors of Ricardo’s office. Upon entering the office, Francis took note of the familiar warm maroon walls, the wooden furniture lining them, and the fire crackling in the far right corner. At the robust mahogany desk resting before the rain-splashed window at the very back of the room sat Ricardo Romano.
“We found him,” Verano said, thumbing Francis as he stepped before Ricardo. “He got lost apparently. Also brought company—”
Tau surged forward towards Ricardo’s desk. “You conniving old, lawless, pseudo-socialite of a man! Do you understand what you’ve done? The laws you’ve broken? Well, I know you have. You’re already being punished for breaking conducting law and now you’ve just moved on to this nonsense? The criminal justice system of this country is absolutely—”
Verano and Lidio exchanged looks before moving forward towards Tau.
Francis raised a hand to stop them. “Tau, calm down,” he said.
Tau shut his mouth and whipped around to study Francis. With reluctance, he obliged and retreated to Francis’s side. He crossed his arms, pushed his skewed glasses up the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. “Bastards—the lot of you.”
Seeming more amused than disturbed, Ricardo waved his hand, in turn. Both Verano and Lidio exited the room.
“Francis,” Ricardo finally greeted him. He gestured to the fireplace. “How about you and our guest dry off some before we start our discussion—”
Tau scoffed. “Are you bribing us now?”
“Mr. Ricardo,” Francis returned, rejecting the offer by walking forward. “I’d rather not accept any sort of hospitality from you at the moment—”
“You got lost, Francis? Did you have to bring Tau?”
Francis turned sharply at the familiar voice and registered his oldest brother sitting in a suede chair at the back wall. “Al…” Realization settled in. “I see. So you were the one who informed Ricardo that I’d come.”
“Barging into a place of a business associate unannounced isn’t exactly polite,” Allen replied. “You had me worried, Francis. I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”
“‘Polite.’” Francis muttered. “Is it customary for someone who sells something like that to worry about something like politeness and decency?”
“Despicable,” Tau added.
“The chlorowheat,” Ricardo acknowledged. He opened his arms. “You’ve come here to discuss it, right, Francis? So—let’s discuss it. Your brothers, Fortuna, and I have been in a partnership to distribute chlorowheat to Argo since the end of last year. We cultivate; you ship. We exchange money. Are the terms not to your liking—”
“Do you have any additional chlorowheat stored elsewhere?” Francis interjected.
“…That’s something that our side handles without needing to consult with your side,” Ricardo responded calmly.
Tau leapt forward again. “And is that written down in the business contract between the two of you? Huh? Is it?! Scum-of-the-damned-world illegal-trading and drug-dealing aside, you have the damned impudence to go back on even the laws of the underground world? Breaking the laws above just wasn’t enough for you? Huh? Hu—” He paused to hack and cough. It seemed as if he’d once again choked on his spit.
Francis’s lips pressed thin and he used the opportunity to say, “You haven’t learned. You still sell product that damages the lives of children and those outside of you. Your apathy is….” His gaze narrowed. “Cadence suffered for it this time.”
Allen’s frown deepened.
“So I’ve heard.” Ricardo nodded seriously. “But I’ve also heard that her condition is improving.” He sighed. “We live in a capitalistic society, Francis. It’s what we have to do to live and survive. People are not always giving and kind. You can’t always rely on a stranger’s generosity. The only people you can rely on are yourself and family. We need to make do with what we have. You have children to care for, don’t you? Many children. Money—”
Again. The same card was being played.
Tau clicked his tongue in disgust.
Ricardo glanced at him momentarily before returning his attention to Francis. “Are you disappointed in me?”
An odd question.
“Disappointment would be an understatement,” Francis snapped more than he’d intended to.
“Well… That’s quite saddening to hear,” Ricardo drew, leaning back into his leather chair, “Theta. The last thing I’d want to do is to disappoint you.”
Francis paused at the change of tone in Ricardo’s voice. He slowly looked back at Allen and found his brother tense and grim.
So that was how it was.
It was not difficult to connect the dots. The over-familiarity with which Ricardo had spoken to him during Fortuna’s wedding; the tension between his brothers, Fortuna, Cadence, and Ricardo; the lies that were already in place. Disappointment began to blossom in Francis’s chest—but it was directed this time at himself.
“I see… So this is what Fortuna was trying to tell me earlier.” Francis let out a quiet breath before turning to his brother. “And I’m assuming you, Carl, and Cadence knew about it and elected to keep quiet. Jericho as well?”
“Not sure about the peacekeeper,” Allen replied. “But the others—yeah.”
“Do you not respect and trust me?” Francis frowned. “You know me, Al.”
“I know you,” Allen agreed before gesturing to his head. “But this whole Theta-ELPIS thing—”
It was yet another knife wound to the chest. Francis frowned, looking away. Tensing, Allen shut his mouth.
“Al, you’re clinging to the past,” Francis finally said. “Things won’t return to the way they used to be—especially not with the syzygy on its way. You need to look at the bigger picture.”
Tau looked between them, appearing somewhat befuddled.
“A man named Theta took me in in the 1880s,” Ricardo finally said aloud what Francis had realized. “Raised me like his son. I always thought something wasn’t quite right with him, but he taught me how to read and to lead.” He folded his hands. “I’ve lived by what you taught me, Theta. It’s because of what you taught me that I’m able to sit here comfortably and give the people under me comfortable lives. I was able to give Fortuna a comfortable life. I was able to give Cadence and you and your brothers opportunities too. I wouldn’t do these things or even have the ability to do these things if it were not for what you did for me and taught me back then.”
Was that meant to be a compliment? It felt more like an insult.
Tau’s eyes widened and he snapped to Francis in disbelief. “Theta…”
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Then I’ve taught you incorrectly,” Francis murmured. “And you’ve taught me, my brothers, Fortuna, Cadence, Nico incorrectly in turn.” He placed a hand over his mouth as he digested the information. “So it turns out that the responsibility for this chlorowheat pandemic is the result of time and my own hand.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Ricardo drew. “The people who raise us affect who we become, yes, but we’re all still responsible for our own actions. That’s what you taught me. By extension, if you apply this to people who purchase and use our products…”
“That’s too simple of an interpretation,” Francis said, now somewhat frustrated. “There are other factors involved—other facets that are compounded. Risk, relevance, blame…”
The rain pattered against the window.
Tau remained silent for once.
Thunder continued to rumble.
Francis thought of Cadence, Omicron, Jericho.
“I have a new proposal,” Francis finally said once his thoughts were somewhat in order.
Allen visibly startled. Even Ricardo looked surprised.
“A proposal? A business proposal?”
“As you’ve said, Mr. Ricardo, times change and so must the way we handle things. I cannot approach this with the moral scale we used to apply.” Francis turned to Tau. “Is that not correct, Tau?”
“I am wholly against the deplorable products you sell,” Francis said, “and I want it all destroyed immediately.”
“That’s a lot to ask for, Francis,” replied Ricardo.
Francis nodded in acknowledgment. “In return, I will offer you something else equivocal.”
Ricardo arched a brow. “Putting aside your philosophies on moral scales, might I ask what spurred on this decision?”
“This world will cease soon,” Francis explained plainly.
There was a beat of silence.
“Yes…This mysterious syzygy.” Ricardo rubbed his chin as he searched Francis’s face.
Francis nodded before offering his hand. “I doubt in this world’s political climate, we will be able to gather the necessary resources to combat it. Despite the peacekeepers’ iron hold, you are still able to exist peacefully. You still have your resources. I would like to utilize them.”
“And what exactly are you thinking about?”
Gamma looked away from the black smoke pillars rising from what was once the central conductor generator facility of this small town of Okör. From where he stood on this mountain flat kilometers above the smoldering town, he could still make out the bodies that littered the front of the facility and the small town houses surrounding them. Most of those bodies—those corpses—were dressed in suits and had white bands fastened to one of their arms.
Ophiuchus might be saddened by the sight–Gamma thought–but she was no longer here. Besides, they were right. They had to maintain and hold to the hope that she had clung tightly to.
Gamma turned to find Delta approaching him from behind.
Delta sighed as she neared him. “They’re becoming quicker and quicker with restoring generator conductors and ley lines, aren’t they? I was just here not too long ago…”
“You’re late,” was all he said in response.
Delta shrugged her shoulders before spinning on her heels and gesturing to the path behind her. Four figures were ascending the mountain towards them. “Is it alright to be late when I’ve made a meaningful… ‘discovery’?”
Gamma registered the first approaching figure as Iota. The other three appeared to be Capricornian gauging by their military-wear. Gamma thought he recognized one of them—the one wearing the glasses, but he wasn’t quite sure.
While Iota immediately came to Gamma’s side, the other three lingered back—clearly apprehensive.
“Where have you been, Iota?” Gamma asked, frowning.
“Looking for you!” Iota replied in exasperation. He paused for a moment to fix his bowtie and style his hair. “Lamendos is gone! Did you see? It’s been absolutely, bloody obliterated! I’ve been jumping around just trying to find you! I managed to capture—”
“Yes, it was destroyed by Alpha’s group,” Gamma explained.
Iota recoiled. “How could they—”
“Who are they?” Gamma questioned, gesturing to the trio behind him. “Recruits? Converts?”
Iota glanced back at them. “It’s… complicated. Oh, but I did manage to capture—” he thumbed behind him. “—well, I’ll show you.”
Gamma glanced at the sole woman of the trio. She had been eyeing him this entire time. He wondered if she recognized his face.
“Oh?” Delta pulled away from Gamma and peered down the edge of the cliff. “Survivors? Why don’t you take a look, Gamma?”
Gamma glanced down towards the village below to find two lone figures entering its premises. He recognized the duo immediately. It was them again. Wtorek Elizabeta and Taurus.
✧ IV ✧
The first century passes by in a blur. Monadism is founded as a religion to continue the baptismal ceremonies that the Mathitís used to oversee. Monadics are zealots and the newly-minted leaders sitting in positions of power weaponize that religious fervor. Conducting meanwhile evolves and changes rapidly and conductors enter wide circulation. Strict conducting-type categories are developed, restraining freedom and individualism.
The first batch of ELPIS leaders are initiated by Leo. When Alpha awakens, he looks upon the changes of the century with disdain. So do the others. Conducting has been defiled, and the cycle is showing cracks. Aside from the disdain, there is evident discomfort.
As a reminder of his dedication to Ophiuchus, Alpha decides to remove his left eye. It does not hurt like last time, and he briefly worries if the lack of pain means that the gesture has lost its meaning. The worry passes with time.
After seeing how uneasy the first initiates are having ‘awoken’ so relatively close to their ‘deaths’, Alpha elects to initiate Theta and Omicron to serve as guiding hands. But Theta is initiated incorrectly into a Monadic priest. She—he—becomes unrecognizable, a zealot, a passionate worshipper. Still, Omicron loves him with all her—his—heart. In the end, Theta is burned at the stake for religious heresy. Omicron mourns so deeply that he becomes listless, depressed. Leo offers Omicron comfort and reassurance while the others begin to recoil at how rapidly the world has changed.
Their first century as ELPIS is thus wrought with mistakes, miscommunication, and hesitation—especially following Theta’s death. They notate these developments all down in their records and hope for improvement in the next iteration.
Acting as a familiar teacher, Leo organizes for them a way to siphon reservoirs in a methodical, holistic, and safe manner. Despite representing the pillar of victory and now having taken on the title of Saint of Victory, Leo gives them direction. Reassurance.
Theta’s second initiation goes smoother. Soon the unease from the circumstances surrounding Theta’s first death are forgotten by everyone besides the records and Leo. The scars are wiped away.
Alpha supposes this is one of the bonuses of bleached vitae, although he does not benefit from it. Not really. He remembers Theta’s burning fully into his third initiation after Mnemosyne provides him with memories and vitae from Julius. But it is not all torture. From Julius’s vitae, Alpha also remembers his late night philosophical conversations with Theta and Gamma; and most importantly of all, he remembers his early morning visitations to Ophiuchus’s side nearly every day as well as every moment in between them.
The second century passes by a bit easier. Leo is, however, absent during this century. Meanwhile, the religious monarchy that has formed in Leo’s domain crumbles.
Theta begins a habit of taking in stray children. It seems to act as a form of reassurance and comfort to them. Alpha wonders if it’s just Theta subconsciously trying to attach themselves to the world–if it’s just their subconscious attempt to combat the way bleached vitae has detached all of them from it. He wonders if he should give it a try himself.
Alpha does not remember much of this century as Epsilon is by Leo’s side for a large portion of it. The history books don’t seem to remember it either.
By the time the third century comes around, Alpha no longer recognizes his friends, his alumni, his fellow Mathitís, his colleagues. It’s not as if he doesn’t remember who they are. He knows and remembers everything. It’s that they don’t remember who they are—not fully. Gamma has lost—forgotten—Pothos’s boyish enthusiasm and charm. Meanwhile, Beta—Eurydice—claims that Alpha himself has become strange when in reality is she who has become strange. Theta’s—Vega’s— gloom thickens. Tau’s—Themis’s—tirades of justice have become a one note character-trait because he remembers little else. The worst is Lambda. Lambda has been initiated the most out of all of them due to her unique knowledge of the healing capabilities and plasticity of vitae, but she has suffered for her willingness and kindness. Her wisdom has become worn away and an airiness has started to occupy her gaze.
The realization drowns Alpha in guilt even as they continue to deter the growth of the vitae reservoirs.
Something has gone wrong. This cold war has gone on longer than it was supposed to. The hope has been that this would have all ended within a century, but now it’s spilling over into multiple centuries.
In panic, Alpha brings this to the attention of Ophiuchus even though he knows she cannot answer him. He pours out his feelings, his pseudo-Knowledge Bearer truth, his heart, his everything out to her. Ophiuchus holds his gaze with her frozen countenance. Her lips move but no words come out. Still, Alpha can understand what she is saying—
Why can’t she see?
✧ V ✧
A sweeping and wide war scars the entire continent. The monarchs, presidents, premiers, and oligarchs sit peacefully on their thrones as the common people spill their blood across the land. It’s a familiar sight. The other ELPIS Leaders don’t seem to think so despite it being recorded in their records. They still cling to hope that all of this will soon end, that Ophiuchus will win this bet, that their hope will prevail.
Alpha anguishes in silence and tries to find subtle comfort in Leo since Leo has witnessed these things too and still remains with them. But Leo does not show the fallacies that feel like they’re poking their way out from Alpha’s insides. And so Alpha continues to empty out from those holes that those fallacies leave behind.
The war takes Omicron’s life; and like clockwork, Theta becomes listless and morose–as he has every single time. His leadership becomes shaken, and he tends more to the orphan children he’s rescued from the war’s devastation than to his responsibilities as the designated leader. Theta, however, is still a constant. He has not been initiated as much as the others have, so much of Vega’s original self remains in him.
Alpha has concerns about the war’s effect on Leo’s alliance with them and so he brings it to Theta’s attention. Theta, however, remains steadfast in his belief in Leo.
“Why do you have so much faith in him?” Alpha wonders in confusion after their short debate. He also wonders why Theta has so much faith in Ophiuchus’s decision and why he himself still has so much faith in it too–but he doesn’t voice this out loud.
“Leo has proved himself from the very beginning and throughout these years,” Theta replies. “You should not doubt those who are close by your side lest your aim is to drive them further away from yourself.” He mumbles into his hand. “Ah, now that you’ve brought this topic to my attention, I realize it now: I’ve been too distant from Leo lately… I should attend to that. He has helped us so far…”
Alpha isn’t satisfied by Theta’s answer and makes it known with a sigh of frustration. He is prepared to disclose his personal feelings regarding the war and siphoning the reservoirs that have been building in his chest for decades now, but Theta beats him to the point—
“I see you have some personal concerns and emotional worries beyond this,” Theta notes, tactlessly getting to the heart of the matter much like Vega would. “Perhaps it would be best if you discussed your personal thoughts with one of the others.”
Alpha doesn’t comprehend Theta’s words immediately because they are so nonsensical to him. “Why would I go to one of the others about this? Why not you? ”
Theta regards him for a while before something akin to sympathy folds across his face. “I see… Despite the few times I’ve been initiated, it seems as if I have lost a measurable amount of vitae. If I have been insensitive, I apologize. I will review the records, but if it’s an urgent matter, I would appreciate it if you informed me what the nature of our relationship was.”
Only then does Alpha realize how much Theta has deteriorated and forgotten. Through all that deterioration, however, Theta’s affection for Omicron somehow remains. But why just Omicron?
The ELPIS Leaders are forgetting themselves–Alpha thinks–but they are also forgetting each other. They are forgetting him. And it’s all his fault.
Incredulously, bitterly, Alpha stares at and through Vega—no, Theta. No, not even Theta. This is not even a full person. Before Alpha knows what he’s doing, he’s on top of Theta and squeezing his fingers around the man’s throat.
Theta struggles beneath him for a moment as confusion floods his eyes. Eventually, however, his arms fall limp. But he is not unconscious. The fight has merely left him. Apathy? The dead look just infuriates Alpha even more. And so, Alpha squeezes down harder and harder until he hears a snap.
In Theta’s absence, Alpha is the leader elect of ELPIS again. The governing bodies of Ophiuchus begin to feel the pressure from the war and come to him out of all people for advice. Alpha finds it ironic how close he is coming to being a true pseudo-Knowledge Bearer with this development. However, Alpha doesn’t know what to do. Leo has cut relations with them. The golden hero that is supposed to represent the ultimate victory has admitted a quiet defeat of self.
Alpha is left disappointed once again.
Despite the memories upon memories that Mnemosyne has filled him with, there is a hollowness eating him inside out.
On a whim or out of desperation—he’s not sure which—he suggests to the governing Ophiuchian bodies an all-out war. If not, he says, they will be consumed by the other countries desperate for vitae. Fear and attachment move the country forward.
Ophiuchus crumbles—both the country and the Knowledge Bearer. Before Leo storms the country Alpha has called home for centuries, before Leo drives Libra’s vitae further into Ophiuchus’s chest and shatters her, Alpha visits Ophiuchus one last time. He enters her chamber; and once inside, he looks over her body and holds her gaze once more. He has done this over a billion times since he has become Alpha; and—he now realizes—each time he looks at her, he feels less and less. She is just flesh and bones now, having been worn away by the passage of time. Just as he himself has. For a moment, he reaches down and wraps his fingers around her throat— but he releases her after some more thought.
Part of him wishes to go back to that day of the Founding Festival when Ophiuchus touched his heart just so he could feel that jubilation again. But the only thing left in his chest now is a void and disappointment. He and the other ELPIS Leaders have sacrificed so much, while Ophiuchus has just laid here uselessly. That and she has evidently lost her end of the bargain.
It’s pitiable, really.
Alpha leaves before Leo storms the Aesculapium. He returns to the chamber half an hour later and runs his fingers along the dust scattered on top of the now empty stone table where Ophiuchus once laid. He’s not sure what he feels, but he thinks it might possibly be ‘nothing.’ Afterwards, he exits the chambers and descends down towards the reservoirs below. There, he finds Leo committing the ultimate betrayal.
Leo and I are the same, Alpha thinks as he watches Leo empty himself out into his reservoir. They have been disappointed by others so many times, but the person who has brought them the most disappointment is themselves.
Living with that disappointment is unbearable. Therefore, it is best to detach oneself from such disappointment.
Finally, Alpha is free.
✧ VI ✧
Victors write—rather, re-write—history. Ophiuchian culture is bled dry–the best parts plucked out and hammered down into something that is fashionable for the new peacekeeping settlers. The Aesculapium becomes the Serpens Establishment, the ceremonial baptismal reservoirs are slandered by being given a name—the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs.
In the years following the war, Alpha listlessly follows along loosely with ELPIS’s cause. Vitae reservoir elimination, generator conductor destruction, ley line dismantling. He does not operate with care or caution as they have done with previous years nor does he heed civilian casualties. It’s not difficult convincing the others who are initiated after the war’s end to do the same. They have lost their home, after all, and their belief in the cycle remains strong as ever. Since Alpha’s current body and self have lived and survived through the war, the other ELPIS Leaders defer leadership in the new age to him. Even Theta who is re-initiated into a Cancerian war widow agrees with his leading position.
It’s laughable. Alpha does not suffer from repercussions from murdering the previous Theta. Him killing Theta’s previous iteration has no meaning. Him extending himself out this long has no meaning now that Ophiuchus is dead too. Dead? Death has no meaning. Nothing does. Everything repeats, disappears, or remains stagnant. There is no other path.
With that realization, the world suddenly becomes easier to live in.
A select handful of ELPIS Leaders who are not initiated frequently, however, do notice discrepancies in Alpha’s behavior. Omega is one of the few who confront him about it.
Flipping her hair with a lazy hand, she addresses him casually after they decimate a large conductor generator fueling a small Cancerian town: “I know what you’ve been doing, Alpha, with Mnemosyne.”
Alpha is not alarmed by her accusation.
“You’re different now.”
“You’re different too,” Alpha responds lightly. “But in the opposite direction, right?” He chuckles. “This conversation won’t matter much, will it? You’ll die soon and forget all about it.”
Omega merely flips her hair again. “Why?”
“Why indeed,” Alpha wonders. “Initially it was because I wanted to remain by Ophiuchus’s side and help as much as I could—ah, do you even remember what Ophiuchus looks like?”
“No, I don’t. But back to what you were saying.” She curls a lock of hair around her finger. “That was your reason then. How about now?”
Alpha thinks on it. “I don’t have a reason now. No reason at all.”
Theta has died again at the hand of the so-called Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. This time she has left behind a cluster of children who weep at her ‘death.’ Alpha returns just in time to greet the children she has left behind.
One child—face smudged with soot, sand, blood—looks up at Alpha for direction. Although the child does not speak, his eyes ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What now?’
Ah, yes, Alpha thinks, this child worshiped Theta just as Alpha himself worshiped Ophiuchus. This child will become nothing too, Alpha knows. So, therefore, he might as well make use of that nothingness—even though it’s all quite pointless.
“Do you want to keep Theta’s memory alive?” Alpha asks the boy and the other children in the end. “Do you want to live for what Theta stood for?”
As expected, they answer yes and Alpha swallows them into ELPIS. As for why he has chosen to do such a thing to them despite no longer caring for ELPIS’s goals…? Spite towards Theta? Spite towards Ophiuchus? Alpha isn’t quite sure. Maybe there isn’t a reason. He’s certain it doesn’t matter. Not really.
Alpha spends the next year wandering without purpose. He has no destination in mind. Rho and Nu stumble upon him at one point and join him on his journey. Eventually, they steal a ship for themselves, collect a motley crew, and start calling themselves adventurers. Really, there’s no reason at all for this.
When they pass by a seaside town on Leo and Alpha spies a Monadic temple glistening on its seaside cliff, he decides to raid it on a whim. There, Alpha encounters Maria.
Maria is golden. Something about her charisma just draws Alpha’s eyes and stirs his heart. He cannot help but sweep her and her friend Conta onto his ship.
It is clear to him that both she and Conta have been indoctrinated by Leonian Monadic Temples. Maria claims to know and embody freedom, but such freedom is false. Alpha tries to teach her about what it truly is—that lack of attachment—but she remains attached to her beliefs in her certainty.
It’s dazzling. Beautiful. No. She is not beautiful. Beautiful is too simple and small a term to label the aura that exudes from every pore of her body.
July 1935 – September 1941
It’s happening again, Alpha realizes, as he draws closer to Maria and Conta. He cannot stand another Ophiuchus, another Leo, another disappointment in himself and another. So, he leaves Maria and continues to spend his time wandering from place to place without purpose.
On occasion, Alpha returns to his resistor, is re-initiated, and fulfills his duties as an ELPIS Leader. He is there for the Tragedy of Aries and has a short spiel in Libra and Cancer. Whenever Epsilon returns the memories that have been stored and recorded over the years, however, Alpha always departs again. His time serving in ELPIS is all meaningless —but it is fun to enjoy those small bits of care and concern every once in a while.
Theta’s rumble through the Twin Cities of Gemini stirs memories in Alpha’s mind. Theta’s rage and familiar disappointment revitalizes something inside his heart. His head is full of memories from the past and his chest is full of only emptiness. The beginning, the middle, the end—he can see it all.
It is time to change faces, he thinks. It is time to change paces.
He is no one, and no one understands him. Therefore he can take in everything and everyone. Including Ophiuchus. Maybe then, she can see.
Proteus’s head and vision cleared. He registered Epsilon pulling away from him and Jericho taking a step back.
“Well, that was unpleasant.”
Jericho’s expression was unreadable.
“I told you there was no reason…” Proteus drew with a frown. “You probably weren’t able to tell since those memories were from a perspective of another, but I didn’t spend that much thought on it at all. I’m sure if you look a little further, you’ll see that I actively recorded—so to speak—how I felt about different events. If you want to look some more—”
“You tricked everyone,” Jericho interjected. He was shaking, but there was no sympathy or pity in his eyes. “You are the one who gave them false hope. You spread it. You… are the beginning.”
“Oh, Jericho.” Proteus offered a look of sympathy. “Labeling things as the beginning and end is just another restraint—”
Suddenly, Proteus was on the ground and Jericho was on top of him. His fingers wrapped around Proteus’s neck just as Alpha’s hands had wrapped around Ophiuchus’s neck and Theta’s neck. His fingers squeezed tighter, tighter, tighter.
“Jericho!” Leona’s voice reverberated through the room. “We need him alive to extract information. Epsilon, stop him!”
Proteus’s vision began to dim. Again, his memories and those of others began to flash through his mind. Swirling around without meaning.
Abruptly, the constricting fingers loosened themselves from his neck and the pressure on his chest disappeared. Proteus wheezed and gasped as air flooded his lungs. It took a moment for his thoughts to become coherent again. When he peeked forward, he found three figures standing at his feet instead of two. It seemed as if another person had entered the scene.
Ah, it was little Maria—as expected. She stood close at Jericho’s side with an unreadable expression. The first thing Proteus noticed about her was the bags under her eyes. The second thing he noticed was that her left sleeve was empty and tied into a knot. Her good arm was linked with Jericho’s own. Proteus knew such closeness was natural given their nature as True Conductors, but he also knew their twin lights just dimmed the other’s light. They were bound to each other—chained, imprisoned by that connection—and yet they earnestly believed they were free. Just as he himself had previously been.
Alpha supposed it didn’t matter.